Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Given the number of ostensibly scary movies out there, it's kinda remarkable that so few of them are scary. Genuinely frightening moments are very rare in films---and some of the movies on this list made it because of just one scene. The list is entirely about scary, by the way...that is to say, flicks that have scared me. They might not be your idea of scary at all. And while there are some well-known horror classics on the list, there a lot of classic horror movies, really great films, that simply aren't scary...James Whale's Frankenstein movies come to mind.
Okay then, that said...on to the list.
I've already discussed F.W. Murnau's Dracula adaptation over on my vampire list... don't have too much to add here. Suffice it to say that it richly deserves to be on this list too, primarily because of the visuals...Max Shreck is really, really bad to look at, and he's used in very startling ways. This is not one of those non-scary classics.
Man, 1932 was an amazing year for frightening movies. You had The Island of Lost Souls, Freaks, and The Mummy, the first two so balls-out that they were both pulled from theaters after a few days. Of the three, Freaks is perhaps the most scary and unsettling. Among other things, it really is in terrible taste, because it uses all these actual sideshow specimens...right from the gitgo, it makes you feel like your skin's on way too tight. But it only builds from there, and takes you well beyond mere queasiness. Story involves a circus ballerina named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who marries a sweet little midget named Hans (Harry Earles)...in cahoots with her boyfriend Hercules the strongman (Henry Victor), she plans to murder the tiny guy for his inheritance. But she makes the other freaks mucho suspicious at a grotesque feast in which they welcome her into their community with a chant that goes "Gooble gobble, we accept her"; it's not her cup of tea at all, and she, well, freaks, and reveals that she's got that thing going on with Hercules. Hans's buds, who include genuine hermaphrodites, pinheads and other strange sorts, figure out that the midget's in danger, and one rainy night, they all pay a visit to the nasty normals. Particularly amazing is a shot of the armless-legless guy (Prince Pandian) squirming through the mud with a knife between his teeth. The malefactors get their comeuppance...Hercules is singing falsetto at the end, and the last shot is of the once-beautiful Cleopatra, turned somehow into a wretched feathered chicken-woman.
MGM cut a lot out, and there was even a version with a tacked-on ending showing Hans all happy and rich, but it didn't rescue the movie at the box office. It was directed by Tod Browning, the Dracula guy, and it pretty much destroyed his career, even in the early thirties, when they truly liked their horror movies. It's that great. One scene in the movie reportedly made F. Scott Fitzgerald puke. When you coax the man behind The Great Gatsby to chuck one up, you've really made your contribution to human history. No Joke.
3.Island of Lost Souls--1932
This one was roundly denounced too---it was based on a story by H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and even he flew into a high dudgeon and condemned it. It was directed by Erle C. Kenton, who did other horror movies (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and Ghost of Frankenstein), but none of those delivers anything like the kick that Lost Souls does. It's seriously creepy and atmospheric, and the climax is genuinely terrifying.
Richard Arlen plays a poor bloke named Edward Taylor...his boat sinks,and he's picked up by a supply ship that's headed for Dr. Moreau's domain, where he gets stranded. The island's extremely dark and dank, and populated by some natives who aren't clearly seen, but plainly very very weird...Moreau (Charles Laughton) has enslaved them, and keeps 'em in line with a bizarre preacher-slave, the Speaker of the Law (Bela Lugosi), plentiful doses of the lash, and trips to the unspeakable House of Pain. He's also got this hot black-haired jungle babe, Lota (Kathleen Burke), who he'd really like Parker to bone, for reasons that aren't immediately clear. Interested to say the least but very suspicious, Parker discovers that Moreau's slaves are actually animals, who've been converted into quasi-humans through ghastly, excrutiating surgery; Lota is Moreau's crowning achievement, although she---and all the other slaves--- are constantly sliding back into their previous forms...the doctor wants to see if he could mate her with a human.
This flirting with bestiality is probably what got Wells and everybody else so riled, and it's nasty enough, but then you have the big finish, when the "manimals'---I believe it was Forry Ackerman's term--- realize that Moreau breaks his own laws, "What is the law? Not to shed blood"---and they rise up and go after him, dragging him off to the House of Pain for a little surgery of their own. Very nightmarish stuff, particularly when we see all these black claws smash into the glass case where Moreau keeps his surgical implements, and come back out with scalpels and saws. While Moreau's being rearranged, Parker escapes the island in a rowboat, along with a ship captain and a chick who's more acceptable than poor Lota...with the island flaming in the background, Moreau's sadder-but-wiser assistant Dr Montgomery says, "Don't look back..." one of the best last lines ever. Movie was banned in Great Britain until 1958. What more can you ask?
The hits just kept on coming in '32, with the last of the big three showing up right at the end, in December, Karl Freund's The Mummy. Freund was a great photographer who started out at UFA in Germany; he lensed Metropolis among other things...not bad. But by the early thirties he'd gotten the hell out of Deutschland (smart boy) and came to the US and did stuff for Universal. He got the Director of Photography credit for Dracula, for example, and apparently co-directed it, alongside Todd Browning; he also went on to direct a great Peter Lorre flick called Mad Love, and film stuff for John Huston.
The Mummy was sorta his very own version of Dracula; it's a semi-remake, in my opinion, even has a Van Helsing character played by Dracula's Edward Van Sloan. There weren't any vampires, of course, but you did have an extremely old living dead guy from an exotic place...the sub-plot about an reincarnated lost love wasn't in Dracula, but it would be borrowed in a lot of Dracula movies later on. The scariest scene comes very early, and it's a classic sequence...benighted Brit archeologists have gone and dug up Imhotep (yes, just like in those recent stupid mummy flicks), and one of the scientists makes the very big mistake of reading the Scroll of Thoth in the mummy's presence, thus bringing him back to life and getting scared literally out of his mind by him. There isn't too much shown, although we do get a good look at the fantastic Jack Pierce makeup on Karloff in his coffin...as the scroll is read out, the camera drifts down to Karloff's chest, and we see one of his hands stirring, just a little bit. After that, it's all back to the idiot who's done the damage...a dessicated hand reaches to pick the scroll up...we observe the scientists's horrified reaction, then, then see a couple of bandage-ends dragging out the through the door. Some other guys come in and find their colleague laughing hysterically, saying "He went out for a little stroll."
Rest of the movie isn't as frightening, and it's not very much like what most people think of when they think of mummy movies...Karloff looks really dry, but he isn't going around in bandages and doesn't drag one foot; he tracks down the modern incarnation of his lost love Ankhesenamun and tries to get her to become a living mummy with him. Whenever someone really gets in Karloff's way, he simply kills them by fixing them with his terrifying gaze. The special effect with his glowing eyes is truly something---I guess it's actually a painting or a retouched photograph---and he convinces you that he could murder you just with his stare. The Nazgul in Lord of the Rings should've been based on this stuff, although I would've cribbed Lee Van Cleef's features.
Anyway, Imhotep goes too far at the end...he's about to mummify the girl, but the statue of an offended god comes to life and blasts him...we get a fairly explicit decomposition scene, rare for the period (there's an even better one in a Lugosi film called Return of the Vampire) and the girl's reunited with her modern boyfriend.
Bottom line; just like the other two flicks from 1932, The Mummy is both a horror classic and has one genuinely scary bit, comparable to Laughten's demise in Island of Lost Souls, and the climax of Freaks.
Here's a story for you.
My father in law, Charles Shedd II, was in the Navy in 1944 when The Uninvited came out...it was movie night, and he was with a bunch of sailors who came out with a lot of catcalls and comments and laughs. But then, about a third of the way through, they all started settling down, and got real quiet...by the end of the movie, they were completely subdued and intimidated.
The Uninvited was very effectively directed by Lewis Allen; it was his second outing as a helmer, and I don't think he ever did anything else even remotely as good. It's an excellent exercise in slow-burn terror, and very much a classic haunted-house thing, depending on mood rather than shocks, although it does have some extremely creepy visuals supplied by ace Paramount FX men Gordon Jennings and the great Farciot Edouart (wonderful Hollywood name).
Story's set in England...WWII doesn't seem to be going on...brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) discover a house right at the edge of a cliff, and decide they just have to have it...they buy it from Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) who's eager to unload it, over the objections of his lovely daughter Stella, played by Gal Russell, whom Roderick starts to fall for. Turns out Stella is deeply attached to the house, because it reminds her of her dead mother, the saintly Mary Meredith. But that's not surprising, since mom is apparently still hanging around the place. All sorts of things start worrying the Rodericks, the scent of mimosa,wilting flowers, ghostly weeping, and a frigid rotten atmosphere in an art studio where Stella's dad was carrying on affair with his hot Spanish model Carmela, who's dead too, and also lingering. Things just get creepier and creepier...there are some cool plot twists...at least one character dies of a cardiac. Won't give away the ending, but it's extremely satisfying. As nearly as I can tell, the movie is the first Hollywood entry in the tradition of ghost movies like The Haunting or The Changeling, and it's very, very good stuff. Those sailors were quite right to shut their mouths and sit still. I'm proud of 'em.
6.The Body Snatcher---1945
I've already run my mouth quite a bit about this one, in my villains' list. Boris Karloff, as John Grey, absolutely owns this movie, delivering his coolest performance, one of the best characterizations in any Hollywood flick. But that isn't why Body Snatcher is on this list. Basically, it's yet another movie that builds and builds to one terrifying climactic sequence. It was directed by Robert Wise, who was a member of Orson Welles's original mafia, and wound up doing stuff for the Val Lewton unit at RKO...Wise became a great generalist director, operating in all sorts of genres, ranging from material like Sound of Music to The Sand Pebbles to the first Star Trek movie. In 1963 he turned out one of the scariest movies of all time, The Haunting, which figures later on this list, but he was already a master of horror back in 1945; I revisited The Body Snatcher in a Best Western in Flagstaff a while back, and it really knocked me out. Shortly afterwards, me and Steve Hickman had a long conversation about it, which totally cemented my reaction.
Film's based on the Robert Louis Steven story, of course...the story was good, but the film is much better, very nicely fleshed out. Henry Daniell plays Toddy Macfarlane, a cold-fish doctor who buys snatched bodies for dissection from Karloff's Grey in post Burke-and-Hare Edinburgh. Karloff is a pretty damn terrible fellow, but he's also rather more sympathetic than Toddy...since the body snatcher has a lot on the doctor, the doctor decides to off him, and this all leads to a sequence in which Toddy, rocking along on a rainswept night in a coach beside a dead woman, starts hearing Grey's voice saying, "Toddy...Never get rid of me, never get rid of me," and things just deteriorate from there...
For my money, this movie is the best of the Val Lewton horror outings, which is really saying something...some people prefer Cat People, I know, and I'm not knocking that, but I prefer Body Snatcher. Besides, my favorite Jacques Tourneur movie is Curse of the Demon, which is coming right up.
7.Curse of the Demon--1958
Jacques Tourneur is another great master of the horror form...if you saw Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, you were watching a great big homage to Tourneur's masterpiece, although the approach was pretty different in most ways. Curse of the Demon is the American title of Night of the Demon...if you hunt it down, make sure to get the longer version, which makes much more sense, and is altogether more satisfactory. The movie is based on Casting the Runes, a story by the fantastic M.R. James, and it's a very well written adaptation. The slant is archetypal horror-story anti-rationalism .I'm not that hostile to rationality myself, but a contempt for logic and reason can result in some cool horror goings-on.
Scientific-materialist psychologist shithead Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England to attend a conference on paranormal phenomena, which Holden has spent his life debunking...he's rather surprised to meet a couple of colleages who let him know in no uncertain terms that his worldview's all wet. An Indian guy in a Nehru hat and jacket makes a particular impression on him, when he proclaims his absolute belief in demons. Later, Holden runs into Dr. Karswell (Niall Macginnis) who has been a particular object of Holden's scorn. Karswell asks him rather nicely to stop busting his chops; Holden won't give in; Karswell responds by passing Holden a parchment with a runic inscription on it...when Holden finds it, it tries to fly into a fireplace, but gets caught on the grate and doesn't burn up. Holden starts having a lot of very discomfitting experiences, hollow drumbeats in hotel corridors, sounds like a creaky bicicyle, floating balls of luminous mist that follow him through a black forest...eventually he learns that that the paper Karswell slipped him will draw a fire demon right to him. His only hope is to pass the paper back to Karswell, but Karswell's on his guard...
Film is very much in the Val Lewton more-sizzle-than-steak mode, although we do see the fire-demon up close, and pretty early too...a lot of people hate those scenes, and the special effects could be better, but I think the demon itself is pretty well designed. The niftiest shot is one where we see the Moloch towering up over a train and raking this little guy to bits with his big hooked claws...the demon's a guy in a costume and the victim's a little puppet, but it still works fairly well in my opinion. Sue me. In between these few concessions to the audience's vulgarity, you get a lot of excellent dialogue, sharp characterization, clammy chilling black and white photography, and loads of expert atmospherics.
Besides, the silliest effect in the film is a stuffed inanimate cat which attacks Holden in a study (he pretends it's munching on him)...but I've never heard anyone complain about it.
As I said, get the longer version...among other things, it has a key scene with Karswell and his rather sweet mother, and a bit where Holden visits a farmhouse full of Karswell's devil-worshipping followers. Whoever cut those scenes was a complete idiot...even with them restored, the movie's quite brisk.
8.Black Sunday, 1960
This is the third time this movie has come up on this blog---it was already on the vampire list, and I devoted a whole entry to it and Black Sabbath a while ago. Actually, I do think I'll let you go back and take a look at those earlier entries, if you're really interested. But if you have to have the basics right here and now, the movie is directed by Mario Bava, one of the all-time great smoking pistols of horror cinema, and it was a real groundbreaker in terms of photography, atmosphere, heavy-duty gore, and real scares. It has spiked masks being pounded onto your face with mallets, baby scorpions coming up out of empty vampire eyesockets, and swinging lamps that lead you on and on into catacombs and then turn out to have no one holding them. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but...
9.The Pit And the Pendulum, 1961
Hey, two Barbara Steele movies in a row!
The Barbster, with her huge expressive eyes, was one of the standout things about Black Sunday, where she had a dual role as the witch/vampire Asa and her innocent descendant...Black Sunday was released in the US by American International, and Samuel Z. Arkoff et. al thought they'd put her to use in Pit And The Pendulum. Back in 1960, they'd had an unexpected smash hit with the Vincent Price/Roger Corman House of Usher,, and they greenlit another Poe adaptation with the same team. The result was the most frightening entry in their Poe series, although Masque of the Red Death is arguably the best. Richard Matheson's screenplay doesn't resemble Poe's story too much, although there is a pit and a pendulum at the climax...you couldn't get a whole movie out of Poe's original, so Matheson had to pad it out. Generally, that's a bad idea (have you seen any of those fucking Dr. Seuss things like Cat in the Hat?) but in this case, the extra material's the best stuff in the movie, especially Price's trip down into the catacombs...
I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Film is set in a version of sixteenth-century Spain in which the Inquisition, strangely, seems to have had nothing to with the Catholic Church. Englishman Francis Barnard, played by the godawful John Kerr, arrives at the Medina Castle to find out what's become of his sister Elizabeth, who married Don Nicholas Medina, played by Vincent Price ...I bet there weren't too many English-Spanish marriages about this period, but what do I know? Anyway, this union was as shortlived as it was improbable...Elizabeth is dead, either from a blood disease, or because she locked herself in an iron maiden (!). Barnard doesn't believe any of Don Medina's increasingly wacky stories, and decides to stick around and ferret out the truth, aided by the Don's dishy sister, Catherine (Luana Anders).
There are all kinds of apparently supernatural manifestations, and the Don, who's getting nuttier by the minute, thinks that Elizabeth is haunting the joint. We learn that he's come by his craziness quite honestly...his dad tortured poor Nicholas's mother and uncle to death right in front of him when Nicholas was a little tyke. Ultimately Nicholas decides to descend into the family crypt and see if Elizabeth is still in her coffin, and she is, but...it's little comfort to him, because she opens her blazing Barbara-Steele creepy peepers and climbs out and chases him back up several stories of rotting steps...
This sequence is tremendous, and it's why Pit makes it onto this list. The movie stays pretty good, although there's a major plot twist that I shouldn't reveal, and I won't. The climax isn't as cool as the scene with Barbara rising from the dead, but it's hard to go too wrong with a giant swinging blade that's just about to slice John Kerr in half....although I guess you might up with two really lousy performances rather than just one.
The sets were designed by the brilliant Daniel Haller, by the way. He could take a zilch American-International budget and stretch it out to infinity, and he and Corman made a great team. Just recently they had a whole bunch of Corman movies on the pay-per-view, and I watched 'em all. The best ones put Hammer's movies to shame, and even the cheesiest and cheapest, such as Bucket of Blood, delivered some stuff. I'm proud to say I grew up watching Corman's product; it made me many of the things I am today!
10.Black Sabbath, 1963
Okay, I haven't devoted as much time to this this Bava classic as I did to Black Sunday, so even though I wrote about it before, I'll do a proper write-up here. Just recently, Sabbath came up when I was writing the vampire list, because the third and scariest story, The Wurdalak, is just plain seminal bloodsucker stuff...didn't make the list because the rest of the movie, an anthology flick, wasn't all about vampires. It's Bava's second-best film, but that's still high praise...for one thing, it's in color, and Bava did a remarkable job on that, at a time when color was generally mis-used in horror movies. It was generally employed to add more punch to the gross-outs or other details, red vampire lips, Chris Lee's Dracula contact lenses, the lining of his cape, etc...sometimes it was tossed into single scenes in otherwise black and white movies, like the bit with the arm rising out of a bathtub full of blood in The Tingler, or the gore gouting out of a staked vampiress in Return of Dracula. The Hammer films were in 1950's style technicolor (I guess it was Technicolor), but everything was fully-lit and looked rather...nice. The problem with a lot of color photography is the lightning...everybody assumes that a color movie has to be in COLOR, with all the hues very distinct...but the only way you can achieve this is by lightning everything brightly, with a load of fill, which means that everything looks flat, like a postcard.
Now, it's really not too great to have a horror movie that looks like a postcard...and Bava obviously devoted a lot of serious thought to getting around the problem. Something similar seems to have been going on over at American International, in the Roger Corman Poe movies...the colors were all pretty distinct, but in rather bad taste, peculiarly combined, and it put you on edge. With Black Sabbath, Bava wanted to retain the sort of strong directional lightning he had on Black Sunday, and he succeeded in combining color and value in a way that you didn't see much of back then: it contributed mightily to the film's overall impact. It looks gory even when there's nothing gory going on.
As I said, movie's an anthology...there are three parts...the first is pretty scary, the second's a dud, and the third is very frightening indeed. Part one involves a woman who's hired to prepare the body of a rich old lady who's died with a ghastly expression on her face...apparently acquainted with the fact that dead people generally don't look real (ever been to a viewing?), Bava employs a hideous dummy-puppet thing as the old gal, and while she isn't convincing, it just really doesn't matter. The woman who's been brought in doesn't want to get near her, but the corpse has a ring she'd like to steal...she pinches it, and when she returns to her apartment, she's tormented by dripping sounds, and then a visit from the corpse...it's sorta like the best Night Gallery episode ever.
Part two involves a woman getting phone calls from an evil guy...it's a bore and a half. But Three is thirty minutes of the best horror cinema ever. If it went on for ninety minutes and stayed that good, it would be the all-time best vampire movie, and maybe the all-time scariest film, period. As it is, we just have to make do with Boris Karloff (still towards the top of his form, even though he was frail and crippled and about a billion years old) as the patriarch of a most unfortunate Russian family...he's gone out to kills this vampire bandit guy, there's a time limit, and he comes back after his use-by date with a great big hole in his chest. No one quite has the heart to do the needful with him...and so he just goes about killing everybody in the family, starting with a little kid, who comes back too, and goes after his mom...so it proceeds. Ah well. They've never been too happy in Russia, and I guess they had their reasons...
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Hey, you're probably going to notice that Lost Boys has reappeared in the second half here, at number seven...that's because I have a little sheet with the various titles on it, and they were out of order, and I found that I needed to list the Herzog Nosferatu in the first five...sorry about that. You can always go back and see what I had to say...if you really want to, that is.
Now that I've got that off my chest, on to Number Six...
6.Mr. Vampire, 1985
Things are different in China. Stiffened by rigor mortis, the vampires have to hop to get around. These hopping vampires are called jiang shi, and they locate you by smelling your breath, which you'd better hold when one's bouncing around nearby. The more fortunate and benign jiang shi have Taoist priests to watch out for them; keeping them out of trouble by gluing litle spell-sheets to their heads, the holy men lead the corpses through the countryside in long hoppity processions. But the more monstrous and uncontrollable specimens go boinging all over the place, suckng blood and making new hopping vampires, and the priests have to hunt them down, the vampires battling back with a lot of stiff Kung Fu.
Now if this all sound pretty funny to you, it is, and the guys who made the Hong Kong hopping vampire movies were well aware of the fact. Back during the Eighties, the kings of the genre, at least behind the camera, were director Ricky Lau and his producer, Sammo Hung, who you probably know, since he's pretty famous over here for his onscreen fisticuffs...he even had his own American TV show, as I recall. Anyway, his production company was called Bo Ho, and it turned out a whole string of jiang shi flicks starring Lam Ching Ying as Kau, the unflappable One-Eyebrow Priest, Hong kong's answer to Van Helsing. Almost all of these movies are pretty watchable, but the best of the bunch was the first one, an expert horror-comedy called Mr. Vampire.
Story has Kau being hired to rebury rich dead guy Lam because the original rites were spoiled by bad feng shui; when the coffin is opened, the corpse is suspiciously uncorrupted, and Kau realizes he's got a real problem on his hands. In no time, in spite of his best efforts, the body (played by the great Yuen Wah, one of Jacky Chan's best onscreen opponents) turns bloodsucker and is up and bouncing about...Kau's assistant Man Choi (Ricky Hui) gets bitten and starts to turn vampire himself, and as if that's not enough, Kau's other assistant, Tsan Tsang (Chin Siu Ho), in a subplot very similar to Chinese Ghost Story,, has attracted the attentions of a comely female spook (Pauline Wong) who just wants to love him and suck his yang essence until he's dead. Ultimately both disciples are purged of evil, and the lady ghost backs off, but that still leaves vampire Lam, who's just been getting better fed and nastier...as might be expected, the movie culminates in a beautifully arranged comic fight that I guess must've been staged by Sammo Hung, although I wasn't able to verify that.
Fans of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein should really take a look at this...it's a very similar commodity, frightening and funny all at once. Moreover, it opens up crazy new vistas for us foreign devils, a Chinese buffet of superstition that most westerners have never heard of, let alone pigged out on. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and as it just so happens, some of them hop...
7.The Lost Boys, 1987
Joel Schumacher's Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark came out at about the same time, within a few months of each other in 1987, and both were very good although extremely similar. Of the two, I think I like The Lost Boys better, although also it pisses me off more... until it brings in the Frog Brothers, a couple of sawed-off comedy-relief vampire hunters, it's going along just about perfectly. Even after they appear, it manages to get its chops back...the climax has a bunch of good violence, and the movie has one of the best last-lines ever. But I wish they'd stuck to the totally serious tone.
Story has Jason Patrick and Corey Haim as brothers who go to stay with their mother, Dianne Wiest, who lives in a dank boardwalk-resort town on the northern California coast. I'm familiar with the kind of cold wet atmosphere you get up there---got some Northern-California bronchitis on my last western trip---and believe me, Joel Schumacher does it up straight. As a matter of fact, this is hands down his best directing job...I really don't understand what happened to the guy later on. But back to the vampires.
Turns out the town is infested with them. Teenagers are disappearing from the boardwalk, although no one much cares, because they're street kids and runaways, etc. Aimless summertime youth that he is, Jason Patrick spots extremely hot Jamie Gertz down by the sea, and she introduces him to the rest of her circle, who, we discover, are a bunch of vampires, including Keifer Sutherland in one of his earliest roles, and Alex Winter in his pre-Bill and Ted days. Our love-besotted protagonist is offered the chance to become a vampire himself, and, dazzled by Ms. Gertz and the promise of eternal coolness, he goes along, much to the horror of his younger brother, who enlists his friends the Frog Brothers for a final vampire killfest.
The movie does an excellent job in depicting the slide into vampire awfulness; there's a real sense that our Romeo's making the worst choice imaginable, although we also get a very clear idea of what's luring him in. Even though there's funny stuff, much of it involving clueless Dianne Wiest, it doesn't conflict with the rest of the movie; for much of its length, the film is remarkably, refreshingly serious. If only it stayed like that, as I said. Even so, I rate it pretty damn highly. A lot of other vampires flicks don't stay good for nearly so long, although some---like Near Dark, The Lost Boys's near twin--- manage to keep their mojo straight through.
And speaking of Near Dark...
8.Near Dark, 1987
I was very happy when Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar...I've been enjoying her films for quite some time, and it was nifty to see her step out from James Cameron's shadow...Hell, if push comes to shove, I think she makes better movies than he does, and Near Dark was a very authoritative early performance...I think it was her second movie, after Blue Steel. The flick doesn't seem to be very famous...it sure came and went in the theaters...I got to see it on the big screen, but not many other people did. Didn't make its money back, and given how inexpensive it was, that's really sad. I hope a lot of folks have caught up to it on video and cable. I know I watch it whenever I channel-surf onto it.
Setting is Oklahoma...sad to say, that's not as cool as the California coast, and the atmosphere isn't as good as what you've got in Lost Boys. However, the two films are real similar plotwise and thematically---teenage boy gets hooked by cute female vampire, gets drawn into a vampire family, struggles to get out, actual family members struggle to save him. Our hero, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), is a farm boy who meets Mae (Jenny Wright) at an ice cream shoppe. They hit it off, he gives her a ride in his truck...and she bites him, then books. The truck won't start after that...walking home, he gets mucho sick when the sun comes up, and gets rescued by Mae's vampire clan, who drive an RV with most of the windows covered. The vampires are a pretty colorful bunch....when Caleb asks the gruesomely charismatic leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen), how old he is, Jesse replies, "let me put it this way...I fought for the south." Then there's Severin (Bill Paxton, fresh off his role in Aliens), an extremely crazed redneck, and Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein, also from Aliens) a lethal butch bitch. In a wonderful scene,the gang, Caleb in tow, descends on a roadhouse and starts doing a lot of horrible vampire things...a guy puts a bullet into Jesse's chest, and Jesse coughs it out and hands it back to the guy...Severin grabs a big Oklahoman, bites him in the neck, and says, "I hate it when they ain't been shaved." All the customers get slaughtered.
Needless to say, as much as Caleb likes Mae, all this ain't for him, and he won't join in. He's willing to suck on Mae (understandably), but the other vampires aren't going to let him get away with this indefinitely. He buys some time for himself when he saves them from cops during a motel shootout, then runs into his father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sara (Marcie Leeds), who've been searching for him. He and Mae skeedaddle with them, but the vampires aren't about to let them leave the family...
There's some stuff about curing vampirism with with transfusions after that...Caleb receives blood from his dad, becomes human again, and gives some blood to Mae...ultimately the vampires are wiped out in a fiery sunlight-conflagration. The vamps getting well done is very...well done; as of 1987, it was about the best scene of that sort I'd ever seen. Great motion-control on the superimposed flames. We sure had come some distance from that feeble lap-dissolve of Max Shreck evaporating. There is such a thing as progress!
Bottom line: Near Dark is very well directed and written (Eric Red and Bigelow did the screenplay), features a bunch of good character actors, has some classic bits, moves right along, and fires on all cylinders and maintains its tone right ro the end. What else do you want? The Frog Brothers?
9.The Addiction, 1995
Abel Ferrara directed a string of good to excellent little flicks back in the nineties, and I haven't seen anything by him for a while...maybe he's still working, I don't know. He never really broke out into the mainstream, and maybe he didn't care, but he sure got some talented people to work with him on his low-budget, extremely intense oddball movies...Harvey Keitel, for example, turned in maybe his best performance in the original Bad Lieutenant (which bore no resemblence at all to Herzog's remake, which I also liked). All the Ferrara films I saw were quite memorably literate and smart, and The Addiction is no exception. It's certainly the most intelligent vampire movie ever, and maybe the smartest horror movie, period.
Lili Taylor plays Kathy Conklin, a philosophy student in NYC, and even though though she's been imbibing all sorts of loathesome intellectual shit, she's pretty contented with it. One night she's accosted by a gorgeous vampire played by by Annabella Sciorra, who gives her a chance to escape if she'll simply say, with utter conviction, that she doesn't want to be bitten...Lili can't manage it, and gets infected. She's very disturbed when she turns into a predator, but everything in her philosophical training conspires to inure her to her horrible new appetites. She infects other folks, and meets Peina (Christopher Walken, in a nifty cameo), who says he doesn't drink blood anymore...supposedly he's gone for four years without, and he advises her to do the same.
Then he sucks her blood.
She doesn't get any nicer after this.
Finally, she finishes her doctoral dissertation, and invites all her professors and the dean to help her celebrate. But before the party starts, she encounters a street preacher who truly isn't interested in getting bit...this throws her into a tizzy. Her guests are arriving, though, and she snaps out of it and gives a speech thanking the academics; finishing with, "and now I'd like to show you what I've learned," or words to that effect, she hurls herself upon the dean, and her vampire buddies rip into everyone else...
It's pretty damn climactic, but it's not the end. Mr. Ferrara isn't silly enough to leave things on such a note...some addicts do recover, and why not Kathy? Turns out she binged way too much, and she stumbles about the city covered in blood and puking it up...she's hit bottom. And the fact that that preacher guy was immune to her seems to have made an impression too. She asks a priest for absolution and gets it. The very end is unclear, since she lays a rose on her own grave...has she died and moved on to the afterlife? Or is she still in this world, her humanity restored? I dunno.
There aren't any missteps until that point, if indeed it was a misstep. I'm just not sure. But I was pretty knocked out by everything that came before. I loved the black and white photography and the performances, and the fact that the script relies almost entirely on ideas, and what appears to be a fairly close observation (or experience of?) addiction. The satire of academia is particularly sharp (I was a grad student once, and my wife is a philosophy professor), and that party scene is powerful, hilarious, and terrifying, a fantastic payoff. Some might label the film pretentious, or get bored by the philosophizing; there's a noticeable lack of fangs and other vampire visual cliches. I don't think the word vampire is even used, although I'm not certain about that. But even though I like pointy teeth and cleavage and stakes and hammers, I was completely engaged by the film, and recommend it very highly. If The Dead was cup of tea, you should give this a shot.
10.Let The Right One In, 2008
Didn't see that Hollywood remake of this, but I can't imagine it was anywhere near as good. Simply put, Let the Right One in is the best vampire movie since the Murnau Nosferatu. I'm not joking. It's almost as though they fleshed out the little-kid stuff in the Wurdalak and the window scene in that TV version of Salem's Lot, and got a whole movie. There's only one thing I took issue with, and that's the stupid CG kitty biz, but it didn't take me out of the movie for long.
If this one movie's any indication, the guy who directed it---Tomas Alfredson---is a damn genius. If he does a couple more this good, he'll be right up there with horror aces like Nakata and Bava and Whale. Screenplay was written by John Ajvide Lundquist from his own novel, and if I'd done that American remake, I'd have stuck very close to his script. Of course, you couldn't have the extremely Swedish Swedish stuff; the movie gets a lot out of mileage out of that, making Sweden look downright nightmarish; it's apparently always winter there, and is populated almost entirely by leering teenage bullies, grownup alcoholics, wannabe adolescent mass-murderers, and vampires, all of them interacting unfortunately in grim, grim, grim concrete housing blocks with crappy exhortational statues out front, jutting up from the ever-deepening snow. As someone who probably would've been sterilized under Sweden's geld-the-problem-students program, I really dug the movie's take on the socialist paradise, although I expect a little bit of the snow melts every once in a while.
Story's largely from the POV of little Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an angelic-looking blond kid. Completely friendless, he's always getting kicked around by thugs at school, but he soothes himself with fantasies of revenge while studying clippings about murders and fondling his knife. One night he meets Eli, a weird little girl who smells kinda funny and goes about barefoot in the snow. The audience learns pretty shortly that she's a vampire; she's got an old guy named Hakan (Per Ragnar) who strings people up and drains them for her---his arrangements for doing this are rather well-thought out---and if he fails to bring home the juice, little Eli gets cranky at him and goes hunting herself. When it begins to dawn on Oskar that she's even weirder then he thought, well, he's somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but she is his only friend. Also, she doesn't take any crap from anyone, and there are some amazing perks to getting tight with her, as we see when she wipes out Oskar's tormentors. End of the movie is extremely chilling, although some misguided viewers have decided it's romantic and happy---we've seen what happened to poor Hakan, who died most awfully in Eli's service, and we realize that Oskar is going to wind up just like him, putting his murderous tendencies to work on behalf of a twelve-year old girl who's never going to age, even though he will, and pretty wretchedly, at that...
Every hardcore vampire fan should see this flick. It's a total fix, and it's way better than any horror movie Hollywood has done in a while. But Hollywood should skip the damn remakes and start re-learning how to do good original work. I don't mean turning out tripe about starry-eyed glittering hunks conferring hickeys on swooning ninnies. There was a time when American vampires complained about unshaven rednecks but chomped down on 'em anyway, and vampire philosophers gave whole roomfuls of shithead academics just exactly what they deserved for perverting young minds...where the hell is Abel Ferrara when you need him?
Monday, December 6, 2010
Been giving some thought to this one for a while. Basically, I'm confining myself to theatrical films, which is sort of a pity, because that excludes the single best adaptation of Dracula, the BBC version with Louis Jourdan. I'm also leaving out segments of films which are otherwise non-vampire movies...Black Sabbath comes to mind, in spite of the fact that the third segment, the Wurdalak, is utterly classic stuff. I did a Mario Bava post earlier in the year, and you can read what I say about Black Sabbath there. I also feel sorta tempted to include a movie which no longer exists, London After Midnight, because stills of Lon Chaney clearly indicate that he came up with the scariest-looking vampire (and movie monster) ever, something even nastier than the original Nosferatu. But as I said, the movie was lost, and all we have are those butt-kicking photos.
And now that that's all out of the way, on to the list.
1. Nosferatu, 1922.
Starting with a bang here....the great F.W. Murnau gives us his unauthorized take on the Dracula story, and comes up with something that's not only superior to every other vampire flick ever made, but also its source material....simply put it's a genuinely great movie by a real master, not just a genre classic. Even Werner Herzog's remake, which makes the list later on, doesn't match it, and Herzog is no slouch. Yeah, the 1922 version is pretty crude technically---it looks like it was made ten years earlier, and the nocturnal scenes feature some of the brightest daylight this side of Plan Nine from Outer Space. But it really makes no difference at all...in fact, this is one of those instances where the shitty film quality just renders the film more nightmarish and otherworldly. Yep, reality doesn't look like that. But Max Shreck's hypodermic teeth and vulture claws seem quite of a piece with overexposure, overcranking, and nights where the sun's blazing like something out of Krazy Kat. Much of the film's power derives from Shreck's performance and makeup, but so what...Schreck is the worst thing you can see in any surviving horror movie, pace once again to Lon Chaney's bloodsucker. But the visuals in Nosferatu are very scary across the board...the technology might be primitive and the budget insufficient, but Murnau sure as hell came up with some extremely choice imagery. I presume the makeup was his idea (if I'm mistaken, let me know), the use of really stark shadows is brilliant, the thing where Max comes up out of the coffin like a switchblade is maybe the single most iconic bit of business in the whole of horror cinema, and the low-angle work with Shreck teetering the deck of the ship is right up there too. I also love the stuff with the processions of coffins and the rats, which seem like something right out of Breughel...you really get this tremendous sense of the vampire's vile lethality, how he's about the equivalent of a medieval plague. The only place where the film really falls down is the climax, even though it depicts, for the first time, the notion that vampires are actually destroyed by sunlight...having the girl allowing him to drain her and thus keeping her at her bedside just seems languid and undramatic. But Nosferatu would've topped this list on the basis of the first twenty minutes alone.
Interesting side-note...the movie almost wound up as non-existent as London After Midnight. Murnau hadn't secured the rights from the Stoker estate; he made a feeble attempt to obscure the fact---shifting the locations, changing Dracula's name to Graf Orlock and so on. But Stoker's widow wasn't fooled, and she went after the movie hammer and tongs, getting a court order to destroy all the prints, most of which were indeed, duly done away with. Holy shit. But some copies survived, thank God, and the world's a better place. I understand that about ninety percent of all the movies ever made have been lost, holy shit again...
2. Dracula, 1931
Hate to follow a Dracula adaptation with another Dracula adaptation, but there's really no help for it; after Nosferatu the twenties just weren't very rich in vampire movies. Even London After Midnight turned out to be about fake vampires, I believe; certainly, when its director, Tod Browning, remade it in the thirties as Mark of the Vampire, that had a preposterous Scooby-Doo ending which negated a lot of the remarkable vampire doings earlier on. Among other things, there was a bit where someone sees Carroll Borland's Luna flapping around outside a window on giant white mothlike wings...even though it took Browning and Co. two weeks to film this rather short sequence, because the effects kept breaking down, in the film her lepidopteran escapade flight turns out to have been an elaborate ploy to fool the bad guys. Just goes to show that Aristotle was right when he said you're better off with outright impossibilities than unlikely possibilities.
Luckily though, Browning gave us a thoroughly supernatural vampire classic in 1931; Dracula was an adaptation of a stage version that had already made Bela Lugosi famous, and Browning quite wisely brought Bela out to Universal to repeat his role on celluloid. The Hungarian was a very weird commodity, but that worked very much to his advantage; his Dracula couldn't be more different from Max Shreck's---where Graf Orlock is a purely ghoulish figure, Bela's Drac is a bizarre Euro smoothie. Of course, neither conception is very much like like Stoker's Count, who was a backwoods Turk-butchering barbarian with hair on his palms, pretty savage.
At any rate, rather like the novel, and most other adaptations of Dracula, Browning's version is at its best in the opening scenes, which feature wonderful matte-paintings and cavernous extremely atmospheric sets. Dwight Frye is quite appropriately twitchy and wide-eyed as English real-estate agent Renfield, who's been conflated with Jonathan Harker. There's a swift succession of fabulous bits, including Dracula going through a giant spider-web on the stairs and not disturbing it, and the scene where he declares he doesn't drink...blood. We get some fine glimpses of spider-infested vaults beneath the castle, and Bela, with his hovering pale masklike face, is really pretty stone creepy. It's all quite cinematic, and about on a par with the work of Browning's contemporary and competitor James Whale; but when the story shifts to England, everything gets very stiff and stagebound. Moreover, characters start telling us about things that we'd rather see, and the climax, an offstage grunt as Bela gets staked, is even feebler than the finish of Nosferatu. It didn't have to be like that, neither...this was pre-code, dammit, and Browning would demonstrate that he could put some really psycho shit on screen with his masterpiece Freaks, although he did get in some trouble for it. Fact is, there's a semi-remake of Dracula that has some genuine onscreen gruesomeness and it got away with it, namely Karl Freund's The Mummy, which is probably, along with Island of Lost Souls, the scariest of the thirties horror flicks. But beyond a doubt, Browning chickened out at the end of Dracula.
Still, the screen time Lugosi gets in the latter parts is still choice, even if he isn't trotted out sufficiently; Edward Van Sloane is fine as Van Helsing, and Dwight Frye as a now-vampirized spider-connoisseur is simply a hoot. But it simply has to be said: the movie owes it classic status primarily to Lugosi's performance and the first twenty minutes. And if you want to see Browning's best work, it's Freaks.
3.Black Sunday, 1960
Long gap after Dracula, I'm afraid. There's some good thirties and forties bloodsucking that I've rewatched recently, but I didn't fall in love with any of it...maybe it's my fault. Dracula's Daughter is superior to much of Dracula, and the lesbian hijinks are pretty startling, but the movie doesn't ever rise to the heights. Son of Dracula is solid but very much a b-movie; oddly enough, a lot of the most memorable vampire carryings-on in the Universal canon are in the vastly underrated Abbott and Costello meets Frankenstein, which is genuinely funny, frequently quite scary, but not entirely a vampire film. As for the Hammer films, I think, for the most part, that they're simply not that great. The vaunted production values are not very impressive (check out any of the Roger Corman Poe movies to see some real bang for your buck), and the Hammer Dracula films are characterized by a distinct lack of Dracula. The violence was hot stuff back in the fifties, but it's pretty tame now, and primarily you're left with good British character actors making do in a bunch of really tiny sets. To see something that blows Hammer's product absolutely away, check out Black Sunday if you haven't already.
True, it's fifty years old, but it's still pretty rabid. It runs out of gas at about the two-thirds mark, but until then it's been very very scary indeed---I'd go so far as to say it's the scariest movie made up until that point. The violence hasn't mellowed...the movie would get an r-rating today, just for the opening sequence where the Mask of the Demon is pounded onto Barbara Steele's face with a big middle-ages Moldavian mallet. The photography is extremely impressive...you'd have to go back to Bride of Frankenstein to find a horror movie that looked this good. I suppose someone could argue that it's not really a vampire movie, that it's actually a satanist incestuous witch movie...but the Satanist incestuous witches are living-dead throat-opening bloodsuckers who fear the cross and wind up impaled on stakes. The guys at Hammer were just screwing around, and I really do like all the cleavage they put on the screen, but Mario Bava's masterpiece is the real deal.
4.Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979
Yet another version of Dracula, dammit...sorry about this. Maybe I should just do a Dracula top ten and have done with it. There sure are a lot of versions out there, and that way I could include the Louis Jourdan adaptation. I could have both Nosferatus, and the Tod Browning version, and the Spanish-language version of the Tod Browning version, and Horror of Dracula, and the Spanish Christopher Lee flick, and the Jack Palance TV movie, and...I'll give it some thought.
No matter what, I really couldn't out leave the Herzog remake of Nosferatu. It's not as good as Murnau's movie, but it has a lot of excellences of its own. Klaus Kinski was a great actor, and he brings a whole lot to the role of Graf Orlock...among other things, he communicates terrible sadness and pain...he really looks like he's suffering, although he's extremely terrifying too, in an intensely vermin-like ratty way. He's clearly spent a very long time in deep damp darkness. The makeup is basically a riff on the original, but the ghastly color is a plus, and the teeth, which seem really specialized for drawing blood, are actually an improvement.
The titles tell you right off that you're in for something remarkable. They're superimposed over a tableau of real-life mummies, from that wacky museum down in Gaunajuato, Mexico. They're profoundly distorted and pathetic, each in a very different way...you get this horrible revelation that you're looking at your own future, although you also realize that you're also going to shrivel up in your idiosyncratic way. Most horror movies wouldn't go anywhere near this, and whenever I had to concoct distinguishing characteristics for my zombies in The Dead, I always thought about the title sequence from this movie.
The film might not appeal to an audience brought up on Hollywood close-ups and promiscuous editing, but I like long takes and long shots, and this movie has a lot of them...or rather, doesn't. Herzog's early style was simple in the extreme...he'd settle on a shot that he considered optimal, and stick with it....like a master. Some might think this boring, but I've had enough of Michael Bay and his ilk, and the last time I went on a Herzog kick,I found his confidence an incredible relief. Nosferatu's pace is indeed slow, but just about every scene packs a cumulative punch. The scary rotting locations are very well chosen; decrepit old
Europe has never looked danker or shittier. There's some stuff with shadows that's as cool as anything in the original; when I first saw the movie, one particular vampiric entrance had the audience applauding. The Breughelish rat-plague scenes are even more impressive than in Murnau's film...the addition of a bunch of burghers having one last banquet amid all the thickening horror, with rodents crawling around under the long tables, is particularly memorable. I could've done without the downer ending, although it's an amusing twist to depict Van Helsing as a rationalist know-nothing who accidentally unleashes the pestilence on the rest of Europe after Count Orlock is destroyed. All in all, it's a remake that does indeed hold a candle to its inspiration, and then some.
Boy, I bet there are going to be some howls about this choice, but what the Hell, this is my own personal top ten list. And I really like the imperially stacked Mathilda May, who's onscreen and starkers far longer than any Hammer babe in any Hammer flick.
But the movie's got some other things going for it as well. It's based on Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires, which actually did a fairly creditable job on trying to update the whole vampire mythos with science fiction; I prefer the classic approach, (screw the whole Twilight thing, yucch), but I managed to get into Wilson's take on the material. For one thing, it brought a whole bunch of scope to the subject matter, and that aspect of the book is preserved nicely in Lifeforce. The film has a comet entering the solar system...there seems to be a spaceship embedded in its core, and the European Space Agency sends a team out to investigate. The astronauts get into the alien craft, which turns out to be full of dried up batlike apparently dead aliens...there are also several human bodies, which the astronauts appropriate. On the way home, however, shades of the ill-fated voyage of the Demeter, the crew starts getting knocked off, and when the ship lands, there's only one guy alive, and he doesn't know what's happened...
The movie gets pretty balls-out crazy after that, the world's nuttiest Quatermass film, sort of like Prince of Darkness with a much bigger budget and better special effects. And Mathilda May...turns out she's is a space vampire who's been to earth countless times, and now she's back, walking around completely naked and leaving dried-out husks who wake up, raise hell for a while, and explode up if they don't get constant infusions of human life-force, which gets sucked out of them by giant glowing collection-balls and brought back to the tomb where Mathilda sets up shop. The movie is frequently incoherent, but it moves right along with huge does of nudity and very wierd gross-outs. Frank Finlay, who played Van Helsing in the BBC Dracula, is on hand as a space-age VH who gets vampirized...just after the protagonist shoots him, Frank grins sweatily, says "Here I go!" and bursts into flame as all the life-force he's collected gets sucked out of him. Ultimately, London is completely overrun with lifeforce-zombies, and it's the closest thing to The Dead that's ever been put on screen...the scenes of mass hysteria, destruction, brain-blowing out, and giant lightning collection balls rolling through the subways is actually pretty impressive, exactly the sort of apocalypse that was required at the end of Quatermass and the Pit, which is, admittedly,a much better movie. But Lifeforce is a fast, sexy, spectacular gas, and I really love it. Sue me.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I hope you've been enjoying those Lilitu excerpts...the book itself, enshrined between two covers at last, has finally popped up over at Amazon. If you ask me, you really should go and get yourself a copy...as I think I've mentioned, I consider it my best book, at least from a technical standpoint...also, it's really fast and funny and has a bunch of my very best characters. Moreover, I'm not going to give you any more freebies from it, so if you want to find out what happens with Lilitu and Toghril, you're just going to have to plunk down some bucks(unless you email me or something, and ask me to tell you).
Monday, November 29, 2010
Okay, here's the last Lilitu excerpt you're going to get for free. If you'll recall, things had gotten real funky for our heroine at Sawaliyeh, and she'd cut a deal with her horrible stepmother Shiraz, although she really didn't expect her to honor it...
The doctor came and removed Lilitu's splint the next morning, but instead of returning to her duties, she kept to her room. This fetched her a visit by Zaghir, the Chief Steward, who said:
"Lady Shiraz just spoke to me."
Looking up from a new poem, Lilitu said: "Oh?"
"She said the physician told her---"
"That he'd removed my splint?"
"---and that you should return to work."
Lilitu had half expected this; she wondered how things were proceeding with Hamid and the dowry.
"My leg still hurts," she said. "I think I'd better keep off it."
"Please inform the lovely lady that I'm still waiting for news about my dowry."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not your messenger."
"As if you're not going to run straight back and tell her what I just said."
"I'll tell her what you just said, all right."
"Isn't that what I just told you?" Lilitu asked.
He huffed out, and she returned to her poem:
If only I had some step-brothers
And a chariot. What fun it would be
To scatter them in pieces out the back
As I made my getaway.
I've only a step-sister
And I like her; besides,
It would be hard to scatter her from horseback
And harder still if I was on foot…
When Zaghir came back, he was flanked by Foulah and Tirzah, two stout middle-aged maids. Lilitu assumed they were along to add some extra pressure, but their glowering presences only made the chief steward seem more pathetic.
"Get back to work," he told Lilitu.
She held up the sheet with the verse on it. "I am working," she said. "Would you like to hear my poem?"
"Lady Shiraz says---"
"Tell her I intend to hold her to our agreement."
"---that you'd better do what you're told----"
"Or what?" Lilitu asked. "She'll push me down the stairs again? Go away. And take those two sows with you."
"How rude," said Foulah.
Lilitu got up from her desk, shooed all three of them back out.
"How very rude!" said Tirzah.
Lilitu slammed the door, guessing Zaghir would soon be back, with more maids to back him up, or maybe a guard or two; she found herself actively looking forward to another confrontation. But in this she was disappointed, and when he didn't return, she went off to the kitchen to get some food. One of the cooks was sweet on her, and made her up a very nice plate.
When she got back to her room, Sayida was waiting for her---Lilitu had showed her how to pick locks, and Sayida had let herself in on more than one occasion.
"Mother's furious with you," she said.
Lilitu set the plate down on her desk, asking: "Anything new about that?"
"She says you'd better get back to work."
"Did she send you?"
"No. But I thought I should warn you. She grabbed that Zaghir fellow by the ear...''
"He's lucky she didn't push him down the steps," Lilitu said. "What did she do to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"After catching you with me," Lilitu said.
"Oh. Nothing, believe it or not. What did she do to you?"
Lilitu laughed, shaking her head.
"She kept looking between my legs...''
"Why do you think?"
Sayida cocked her head forward, eyes wide with disbelief.
"She got excited," Lilitu said.
Sayida shook her head as though someone had just struck her.
Lilitu continued: "She said she'd let the whatever give me a dowry if I let her do me."
"And what did you say?"
Sayida's hand dropped away from her mouth; her eyes opened a bit, slits of sheer disgust. "To have sex with my mother?"
"Didn't see any way around it."
"Oh, this is too much," Sayida said. "Pah. Uggh."
"I'll tell you what, you'd better watch out. If she likes me so much...''
"She doesn't like you."
"She likes my looks,'' Lilitu said. "So you'd better believe she likes yours too.''
"That's so nasty!" Sayida said.
"Has she said anything about my dowry?" Lilitu asked.
"Plenty. She and the whatever are arguing about it all the time, as far as I can tell."
Lilitu said: "She promised---"
"You must've known how that was going to turn out."
"But he's standing up for me?" Lilitu asked.
"He wants to send you off with a lot of money."
"Really," Sayida said. "For what it's worth, I think he actually loves you."
Lilitu was dabbing at her eyes before she knew it. "Then why was he so horrible to me all that time?"
Sayida tossed her hands up. "People just…do things."
Lilitu nodded. "Well, I'm going to do something myself."
"What's that?" Sayida asked.
"I think he needs to know about your mother's little proposition to me."
Sayida looked appalled. "No he doesn't."
"Yes he does."
"He'll divorce her. Throw us out."
"I doubt it," Lilitu said. "But if he does, where did you live before? With your uncle, right? Wouldn't he take you back?''
"You have nothing to worry about."
"But I won't have you anymore---"
"Sayida," Lilitu said, "you're a dear, but you won't have me anyway, because I'm going to get my dowry and go."
Sayida's chin dropped. "I suppose."
"Now," Lilitu said. "You should go, and let me eat my lunch. If I'm going to have it out with your mother, I'm going to need my strength."
After eating, she took a while to compose herself, then went upstairs to Hamid's room. She knocked, but no one answered.
The hall was shadowy; as she stood by the door, wondering if she should wait, or go looking for Hamid, a servant by the name of Annanah went by without acknowledging her presence, carrying a bucket and a lit taper. Something dark had splattered the mosaic border at the bottom of the lefthand wall; laying the bucket on the floor, she took a brush out of it and went to work, holding the taper close to the wall, its flame sputtering as little ticks of water struck it from the brush.
"What is that on the wall?" Lilitu asked.
"Lady Shiraz's plum sauce," Annanah said.
"Did she throw it?"
"At Master Hamid. And of course she waited until it dried before telling me. It's in there good between the tiles..."
Lilitu smiled to herself. Threw her plum sauce at Hamid, she thought. That was promising.
"Where are they now?" Lilitu asked, then heard Shiraz shouting downstairs. At length the Monster and Hamid appeared, coming up the steps; she was giving him an earful about the dowry, but broke off when she spotted Lilitu, halting below the stairhead.
"What do you want?" she cried.
Hamid said: "Please, lower your voice---"
Shiraz strode up into the hall towards Lilitu, who said:
"We had an agreement."
"Get out of my sight," Shiraz answered.
Coming up, Hamid asked: "What agreement?"
Lilitu looked at Shiraz. "Shall we discuss it out here in the hall?"
"What agreement?" Hamid repeated.
"It's nothing," Shiraz said.
"Then we might as well discuss it out here," Lilitu said.
Shiraz hissed a breath; then she opened the door. Lilitu stepped through first, followed by Hamid. She stopped beside the bed, turning towards him and asking:
"Are you going to let me have my dowry?"
Shiraz closed the door behind her, asking: "Why are you speaking to him?''
Lilitu ignored her, asking Hamid: "Are you?''
"We've been discussing it," he replied.
"You're not getting any of our money," Shiraz told Lilitu.
"Dear---" Hamid began.
"Shut up," she said.
"We had an agreement," Lilitu said.
"You are a lying little slut."
"Shall I tell your husband about it?" Lilitu asked.
Shiraz looked to Hamid. "Don't believe a word she says."
Very like a man most weary of listening to his wife's commands, he eyed Lilitu, who told Shiraz:
Shiraz studied Lilitu's face; Lilitu did her very best to convey, through her eyes and the set of her mouth, the fact that she was absolutely willing to reveal the whole gruesome story. But she succeeded a bit too well---apparently concluding she had no choice but to strike first, Shiraz said:
"Last night, she...offered herself---"
"She's lying!" Lilitu cried.
"---on condition that I'd let her have the dowry."
"Offered herself?" Hamid asked.
"I don't understand."
"To have sex with."
He just stared.
Shiraz said: "I played along, just to see how far she'd go---we were supposed to meet later tonight. I wasn't going to show up, of course---I was going to tell you all about it, dear husband, but then I thought, you really don't need to hear this. After all, she's inflicted so much pain on you already, and brought so much shame on this household---''
Lilitu shouted: "Filthy, filthy liar!"
Shiraz smiled, asking Hamid: "Who are you going to believe? You know about her and that boy. She takes after her mother. And what was her mother like? She'd sleep with anyone. There were all those rumors about other women...''
"I never heard anything like that," Hamid said.
"I can easily believe it," Shiraz answered. "But everyone else heard all about it---"
"Incredible," Lilitu said. She almost told how Shiraz had caught her with Sayida, caught herself and decided to leave to leave Sayida out of it, then pointed at Shiraz and continued: "She came into my room, pulled a blanket off me, looked at me naked, and told me she'd agree to the dowry if I let her do what she pleased. And because I was so desperate to get away from her, I agreed---"
Hamid began: "Are you saying---"
"She was all over me. But she just didn't know what to do."
Shiraz gestured dismissively. "Your word against mine."
Lilitu watched Hamid. He seemed to be dithering; she felt a tremendous surge of contempt for him.
He wasn't the enemy. He was weak beyond a doubt, and had been horribly foolish, but he wasn't being horribly foolish at the moment---- really, he didn't have any reason to take her word over the Monster's.
It's not as if you have any evidence, Lilitu told herself. And he has good reason to suspect you…
She had dishonored him with Oded. Her mother was a lying slut who conceived her out of wedlock...Lilitu shook her head, realizing she was stymied. In all likelihood, he didn't believe Shiraz either, but to all intents and purposes, this stalemate was defeat.
She looked at Shiraz. The Abomination smirked back.
Knows she's won, Lilitu thought. Even though she was sure it was all over, she turned to Hamid. He shrugged helplessly, as if to say:
What am I to do?
"Get out," Shiraz said.
And plucked at Lilitu's sleeve.
Lilitu barely heard the words, but that tug---something about the way it made the cloth bind at her elbow---was provocation itself. If Shiraz had stabbed her, it couldn't have been more exacerbating. Lilitu almost leaped upon The Monster then and there, and couldn't imagine why she restrained herself. But when the instant passed, her mind was greatly clarified, as though her panic, which was really quite useless, had been burned away; suddenly she hit upon a whole new tack.
"Well," she told Hamid. "If you can't believe either of us---"
"He didn't say that," Shiraz snarled.
"---put that whole matter aside."
"You're the one who raised it," Shiraz snapped.
Lilitu struggled to keep herself on course, saying: "It was never the main issue---"
"--- just give me my dowry...father."
Hamid seemed surprised to hear the word from her.
"Please," Lilitu said. "You'd decided to give it to me before any of this surfaced...marrying me to Akbar will strengthen the family, remove a source of discord here...''
Shiraz answered: "As soon as Akbar finds out what kind of slut you are, as he surely will, the family will be worse off than before."
"Father," Lilitu said. "You took responsibility for me. If you pass me on to Akbar, you've discharged your duty. It's the right thing to do, and it's in your interest."
"I'll never agree to it," Shiraz said.
"Father?" Lilitu asked.
Shiraz laughed. "As if you were sired by him! As if!"
Lilitu searched Hamid's face, trying desperately to tell if he was leaning her way. But all she could see was a look of intense inner turmoil.
"Hamid," Shiraz said, "If you give her that money----"
"Shhh," he said.
"-----I will visit the torments of the damned on you. Do you hear me, Hamid?"
He nodded slowly, a terrible resignation creeping into his expression.
"Father?" Lilitu asked.
"It's yours," he answered softly.
"What did you say?" Shiraz asked.
Not answering, he went round the bed to a large chest up against the wall.
"Don't you dare open that!" Shiraz cried.
"God bless you, father!" Lilitu called.
Shiraz's face whipped towards her. "Get OUT!" she screamed.
And snatched at Lilitu's arm again.
But this time, even though things were going her way, because things were going her way, Lilitu simply snapped; like a command from heaven, bold blood-red script flowed across her mind:
Kill the bitch.
With a shriek, she whirled towards Shiraz and drove a small fist right into the woman's handsome nose. Shiraz staggered back, clapping both hands over her face.
Lilitu looked about, spotted a small lamp, flipped the top off it, and dashed the oil in Shiraz's eyes. The Monster's hands went immediately to them, uncovering her nose, and Lilitu slammed that again. Shiraz stumbled back several more paces, blood streaming from her nostrils. Lilitu followed, stamped on one of her insteps, punched her in the stomach, then caught her right in the face when it snapped forward. Blubbering red bubbles, Shiraz straightened, struck the door; fumbling behind her, she managed to turn the handle and stumble out.
"Lilitu!" Hamid cried.
Lilitu looked back at him. He had the chest open and was holding two small swollen sacks.
"Here's your dowry!" he answered. "Just stop it!"
But Lilitu was too angry to have any of this, and ran out after Shiraz, noticing, dimly, that she didn't hear any pursuit from him.
The Monster was halfway to the stairs; between her and Lilitu stood Annanah, who was still holding her brush and that taper---Lilitu dashed by her, plucked the taper from her, and flung it at the back of Shiraz's head. Sparks flew, and oil-soaked hair ignited; Shiraz halted at the stairhead, beating at her scalp, whirling about screaming. After a few seconds, she managed to slap the flames out and stood whimpering, facing Lilitu, who had stopped a few feet from her, looking at the smoke rising from Shiraz's head, sniffing.
"What a stink," Lilitu said.
Then she shoved the Monster over the edge with both hands.
Sandals flying from her feet, Shiraz went down in a whirlwind of thrashing limbs, knees, elbows and head knocking against the stairs. At the bottom she lay still, and Lilitu thought perhaps that she was dead; but then the bitch got to her feet and stumbled drunkenly off down the hall, trailing smoke.
Lilitu never saw her again.
"What's that smell?" Hamid asked, coming up at her side, the sacks dangling from his hand.
"Her head," Lilitu answered.
He fanned a hand in front of his face. "Phew. Did she put it out?"
Lilitu nodded. "Just before I pushed her---"
He winced, looking down to the bottom. "Where'd she go?"
"Somewhere," Lilitu answered.
"I think you'd better leave now," he said, and hung the sacks over her shoulder by two thongs which bound them together. Lilitu grunted under the weight.
"She had it coming," she said.
He made no reply.
"She was lying, not me."
"It doesn't matter,'' he said.
"Are you going to divorce her?"
"I don't know," he answered. "It's not your concern anymore. Find Nadjibullah.''
"That old guardsman?" Lilitu asked.''The one who was kicking Oded in the mouth?''
"Forget about that,'' Hamid said. "Oded was shit. He didn't do you any favors. I've already talked to Nadjibullah. He knows what to do. He'll take you to Akbar.''
Hearing Akbar's name, Lilitu decided then and there that she might be able to stomach Oded's tormentor after all...indeed, she felt a sudden rush of gratitude, and said: ''Oh...oh...thank you...''
Hamid put his fingers to her lips.
"Be happy," he said.
And kissed her on the forehead.
She started down the steps, but he added:
"I'd rather you didn't run into Shiraz again."
Lilitu wasn't afraid of that, but deferred to him anyway; feeling full of accomplishment, she headed back up into the corridor, went by him, and down a different flight of stairs.
She asked for Nadjibullah in the guardroom, but he wasn't there, and no one knew where he was. While she was debating where to look next, she remembered Sayida, and told herself she must say goodbye. She searched just about everywhere; finally one of the maids, a pretty little recent arrival (Lilitu didn't even know her name) smiled knowingly and said:
"Why don't you look down in the wine-cellar?"
Lilitu was puzzled. What would Sayida be doing down there at this time of day, and without her? And furthermore, why would this maid know about the love-nest? A dark suspicion crossed Lilitu's mind, but, certain that Sayida loved her, she brushed it aside.
Arriving at the entrance to the wine-cellar, she stuck her head through to see if the "wine-watchman," as she and Sayida called the fellow, was about. He was seated in the usual place but uncharacteristically conscious, eating a piece of flatbread; he seemed amused to see her.
"I'd wager you're looking for Sayida," he said.
"Actually, I---" At a loss for a lie, Lilitu pulled her head back out, but he called after her:
"Don't worry. Won't say a thing. Paid up for the month."
She leaned back through. "By who?"
"Your twin. I woke up and caught her a week ago, and we made a deal." He smiled."Guess where she is."
Lilitu went behind the barrels and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but she heard some scuffling behind the wood.
"I know you're in there, Sayida," she said.
Still no answer.
"Father's given me my dowry, and I'm leaving, and I just wanted to say goodbye."
More scuffling; she heard the lock snick, and opened the door. Several lamps were burning inside; wearing a skimpy shift, hair dishevelled, Sayida was crouching near the entrance. Someone was huddled under a blanket against the wall in back, bare toes, gleaming with rings, peeking out from under the cover.
"Who is that?" Lilitu asked, laying the gold-sacks down.
Sayida just showed her an embarrassed smile. Lilitu went over and tugged the blanket down. There was the Lark, quite naked, gathering her legs up against her chest with both arms.
"She's wearing my earrings," Lilitu said, working her shoulder. "Those were my mother's...''
"Sorry," Sayida answered.
"I thought you loved me," Lilitu said.
"I do," Sayida replied. "But I'm a slut. Said so right from the start. You can't trust me."
"Should I leave, My Lady?" the Lark asked.
"No," Sayida said. "Once Lilitu's said goodbye...''
"Who else are you fucking?" Lilitu asked.
"Well, I'm not fucking them all at the moment, if you see what I mean. But I have been with every good-looking person in this house, I think."
"What do you mean when you said you love me?"
"I don't know. What does it mean? When it comes to doing it with you, I'd take a lot more risks than I would with most people---is that enough?"
"You're terrible," Lilitu said.
"I suppose," Sayida replied. "But I don't think I can change, and I don't want to, either. Do you think you're better than me? That way, I mean? You're certainly smarter than me, and you write wonderful poems, but most people would think you're pretty terrible yourself."
"I never did anything behind your back," Lilitu said.
"And I appreciated it. It was sweet. But really, you should have. After all, it's not as if you loved me. You don't, do you? I'm too stupid for you."
True enough, Lilitu thought.
"You don't care about leaving me," Sayida went on. "I'm a bit surprised you even came to say goodbye."
"I'm going to miss you," Lilitu said.
"And I'm going to miss you," Sayida said. "So why don't we kiss, and part friends?"
"And let you go back to fucking the Lark?" Lilitu asked.
"Don't be like that," Sayida said.
Lilitu squinted disgustedly at her, pecked her on the cheek, took up her dowry again, and went out of the nest, closing the door behind her, her mood very much flattened. Given the things she'd known all along about Sayida, she wasn't sure why she should be so put out now; but she couldn't deny that the sight of the Lark with her mother's earrings on had been rather a blow to the stomach.
At least go back in and get them, she told herself.
All at once the door opened. "Do you want the ear-rings?" Sayida called from inside.
"Yes," Lilitu answered.
Presently Sayida handed them out.
"Thank you," Lilitu said.
"Really, I think I do love you," Sayida said. "It's just not worth much of anything."
Lilitu just nodded.
Find Nadjibullah, she thought.
For lack of a better plan, she went to the guardhouse again, guessing he might've returned in the meantime.
"Yes, he's inside," said one of the men at the door.
Lilitu went in. Immediately she thought she detected a faint odor of burnt hair.
"Has Lady Shiraz been here?" she asked a soldier.
Before the man could answer, Nadjibullah, looking taller and more broad-shouldered than ever, wearing a helmet and scale-mailshirt, a sword at his side, stepped out of a doorway on the left, a large bag under one arm and another over his back. Right at the moment, his long grey hair and close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, which had always made him seem so ancient, gave him an air of experience...Lilitu found it rather reassuring. If she'd been older, she might even have thought he was on the handsome side, in a leathery rugged way. Certainly he knew how to kick someone in the teeth.
"There you are," he said, in a deep agreeable voice.
"Has she been here?" Lilitu asked.
"The Lady of the House? A little while ago. Told me I'd better not follow My Lord's orders regarding you. Whereupon I informed her that she had no say in the matter. I understand you set fire to her head."
"Have you packed?"
"Better see to it then, hey?"
After asking him to requisition a chest for her books, she went back to her room. Once everything was packed, a servant helped them bring the baggage to the stable, where it was loaded on a mule. Then Lilitu and Nadjibullah departed the house of Hamid Ben-Babd, each mounted on a good horse and leading another, riding through the fig-groves towards the great field where the caravans stopped.
"One came in yesterday," Nadjibullah said. "They're getting their water and provisions now. I'll speak to the caravan master, show him the letter from your father--- we'll get a good night's sleep, leave before sunup. Then it's three or four days to Al-Baradh, and wedded bliss for you." He looked at Lilitu. "Why the long face?"
She'd been thinking about Sayida, and no matter how she told herself that she shouldn't feel so hurt, she couldn't help herself.
Nadjibullah asked: "Have you begun to suspect that wedded bliss isn't all it's cracked up to be?"
"It's not that," Lilitu said.
Although it could be, she thought.
"Don't tell me you're sad to be leaving," he said.
"I don't want to talk about it," she answered.
"Is there someone back there you're actually going to miss?"
"I told you---"
"You don't want to talk about it. Well, whatever it is---why don't we talk about something else?"
"Maybe it is everything," she said.
"Everything?" He laughed. "Hard to steer clear of that."
"So be quiet," she replied.
They rode on a while in silence.
"Have you learned anything?" he asked at last.
He flung a hand over one shoulder, as though he were tossing something away.
"All that. Life in the house of Babd."
"That no one can be trusted."
"A hard but incontestable truth," Nadjibullah declared.
"I only know one person with a really good heart," she said, "and he's very weak. You can't rely on him."
"This wouldn't be your father, would it?"
"He's not my father."
"You don't say," Nadjibullah answered. "Your mother's wife, then."
"Wife," Nadjibullah laughed.
Nadjibullah said, "A good heart does make you weak, no two ways about it. Clouds your judgement, too. Makes you trust people---"
"When no one can be trusted."
Nadjibullah looked at her slyly. "Of course, that means you're untrustworthy too."
"I don't think I'm worse than anyone else."
"But you do bad things?"
"Not as bad as some."
"Thinking of your stepmother?"
Actually, Lilitu had been thinking of Sayida, but nodded anyway.
"She's a witch, all right," Nadjibullah said. "Going to fry your mother's wife in his own fat, absolutely."
"God save him," Lilitu said.
Nadjibullah spat. "As if God cares."
Lilitu just looked at him.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"I suppose," she answered.
"You just don't quite believe you believe?"
"Well, He's not going to help the exquisitely wretched Hamid Ben-Babd, Son, Grandson, and Great-grandson of Misery. If He has any attitude towards him at all, it's hatred. And if He had any objection to Shiraz, He wouldn't have made her to begin with. You've got to open those pretty grey eyes of yours. See things as they are."
"You're quite the philosopher," she said.
"I will say my eyes are wide open." He smiled at her---to her amazement, she was actually beginning to find him rather attractive, even if she wasn't old enough to.
They reached the campground. There were scores of tents and hundreds of packanimals, horses, donkeys and camels; a few of the merchants were still in the process of buying provisions from Hamid's tenants, who had brought figs, bread, cheese, and goats to sell. Near one big tent, Lilitu noted a large number of guards, armored much the same way as Nadjibullah.
"Lot of soldiers," she said. She'd never seen so many with a caravan.
"Toghril," Nadjibullah said.
That was indeed sufficient explanation; the bandit chief's infamy had grown steadily through the years. Supposedly, his gang now numbered in the hundreds, composed of Kadjafim as well as Naimans.
"Have you heard anything?" Lilitu asked.
''He hit an oasis about ten days east of here.''
"Do you think he's really as horrible as they say?"
"Absolutely. When I knew him---"
"You what?'' she asked, amazed.
"Back when I was in the Khan's army. Toghril was a cavalry commander. A more frightful son of a bitch I never met. And this was before he became a bandit. I saw him in battle more than once---if there's anyone anywhere who could stand up to him, it would be a miracle. He had this big double-bladed axe---it went everyplace at once. And when it came to just plain murder...brrr. One day we were trying to catch up with him, went through this village. I've seen some terrible things, but I never saw anything remotely like that. It was way too much, even for those Urguz generals, and they're not squeamish. I'm no saint, but Toghril's in a class by himself...Crazy, crazy man. " Nadjibullah shook his head. "You should see how he looks."
"I understand he's very ugly."
"He's so scarred and bent he doesn't look like he should be able to move at all, but he's fast as a cobra and unbelievably agile...short fellow, but much stronger than most big men. Arms like an ape. And his face---very disturbing."
"Why's that?" Lilitu asked.
"He was a Naiman prince...''
''Naiman princes are all ugly?''
''Just listen. When the nomads have to kill one of their nobles, they're not allowed to spill their blood, so they wrap them up in a blanket or rug, and then ride the whole tribe over them..."
"I bet there's quite a bit of blood," Lilitu said.
"I bet so too," Nadjibullah said. "But that's what they do, and why. Anyway, our boy killed somebody more important than he was---can't imagine how they caught him, but he was sentenced to death, and wrapped in a carpet. But they were only partway done with riding over him when a bunch of Mirkuts or Keraits or whatever came charging up, and the Naimans had to leave off making him into a paste. Everyone forgot all about him, and damned if he didn't recover. Looks like he took enough pounding to kill twenty men, but...''
"Did you ever get used to his appearance?"
"Believe me, my dear," he said. "There are some things you never get used to. Wait here. I'm going to see if I can't find the caravan master."
He came back towards sundown with some firewood, and a goat's haunch which he thrust into Lilitu's hands. She made a face.
"Sorry to get you messy," he said, "but it would be better if we kept the meat out of the dirt, yes?'' He untied a bundle that had metal things clinking inside, took out two uprights and a long flat skewer with a wooden handle at one end, jabbed the uprights in the ground, and set the skewer in the forks on top of them. Then he got some brush and laid that down for kindling, and added a bit of fluffy tinder, which he struck a spark into with iron and flint; the tinder caught, and the kindling went right up, and he started a chunk of wood, which was dry and splintery, went right up too, and was followed by several more chunks. All the while, Lilitu had been sitting there holding that bloody haunch, but now he took it back, skinned it with a knife, ran the skewer through, and set the spit back in the forks. Soon the meat was sizzling and dripping, a delicious smell filling the air. After a time he turned the haunch over, and sprinkled it with something that he'd taken from a little leather sack.
By then, the sky was darkening. Lilitu looked round at all the other campfires, and the silhouettes gathered round or passing in front of them. It was really quite a scene, the flames and everything they lit orange-red, the long shadows of the figures stark black, the sunset's pale yellow deepening to green, then blue. She began to feel better about everything---yes, her life had gotten very unhappy, but she was leaving all that behind.
Nadjibullah washed his hands with a bit of water from a leather bottle, then said:
"I've got a little tent. Shall I set it up, or do you want to sleep under the stars?"
She looked up at the sky. A few of the brightest ones were already visible. "Under the stars."
"What do we do about vermin, though?" she asked.
"Haven't you ever slept outside?"
He shrugged. "You just have to take your chances. But it's not that dangerous. The scorpions you have to worry about are the big black kind, and they're not very common, and they stay away from people. The sort that like to cuddle up are the little brown ones. They'll sting you, but no worse than a bee."
Lilitu studied him. "You know about scorpions, and snakes and things?"
He smiled. "What of it?"
"Oh nothing. Want to hear something funny?"
"Always in the mood for that."
She said: "Someone put a bunch of those little brown ones in my room."
He looked appalled. "Why would someone do such a thing?"
"I think they were trying to kill me. For Shiraz."
He mulled this over, then said: "There's another possibility."
"They might have been trying to keep you alive. If they knew about scorpions, but Shiraz didn't, say, because she was so scared she never learned...'' He smiled again, then inhaled through his nostrils. "Doesn't that meat smell good?"
The caravan departed well before sunup, and even as the sky started to redden, had already crossed the dunes east of the oasis; beyond lay a vast stretch of gravelly plain dotted with brush. When the yellow disc of the sun lifted into view, just off to the right, it rose over an utterly flat horizon, limning the tops of the low brushes.
"I can't see Al-Baradh," Lilitu said.
"Why would you expect to?" Nadjibullah asked.
"Aren't there two enormous stone columns?"
"Yes, but they're down below a rim...the ground falls away. We won't spot anything till the last day. They're both the same height, but one's much thicker than the other. The original fort sits on top of the thin one---very impressive. Many towers...the first thing we'll see is the tops of those, poking up. But the new fort is rather a measly little bore. That's where you'll be living.''
"Why was the first fort abandoned?"
"There was a bridge between the columns...you could only reach the second from the first. But the middle of the bridge collapsed about a hundred years ago, and no one could afford to rebuild it, so they just built a new, smaller fortress on the first column."
They rode on, Lilitu squinting eastward, using her hand to shade her eyes from the sun. At length she lowered her gaze. Low as they were, the bushes cast long violet shadows in the early morning light. Little things were chasing about on the ground. Lilitu guessed they were mice or lizards, or just possibly---
She turned toward Nadjibullah. "You put them in my room, didn't you?" she asked.
"The scorpions. And the snakes."
He laughed. "Didn't I say as much? Over dinner?"
Lilitu asked: "Why didn't you do what she told you?"
"Your lovely stepmother?"
"Why didn't you use really dangerous ones?"
"Because she thinks they're all really dangerous. Weren't you listening last night? She thought any would do. I just followed my orders."
"But why did you spare me?"
He looked amused. "Guess."
"Because, my dear," he said, "you're quite a wonderful little piece."
"Oh," she said, feeling her cheeks growing hot. "Is that it?"
"Yes, that's it. Nothing more to it than that. If you were ugly you'd be dead and ugly now. But I took a shine to you a couple of years ago, when you stopped looking like a little girl. You might not have noticed me, but I certainly noticed you."
"Ugh," Lilitu said. "And how old are you? A hundred and fifty?"
He took the barb completely in stride. "This particular hundred and fifty year old has certain advantages over callow youths, my dear."
"To start with, I'm in better shape than most of them. And I really know what I'm doing. I've had a lot of experience.''
"Eee--yeww," Lilitu said.
"Don't give me that," he answered. "You've decided I'm not so bad. I can tell."
"No you can't," she said. "Because I haven't."
"All right. I'm pretty unappetizing. Whatever you say. But you are deep in my debt. And you should know that Shiraz hasn't given up on her money---or killing you. Came to see me while her head was still smoking, told me to cut your throat to the spine, bury you in the sand, and bring the dowry back...''
''How much did she pay you?''
''Does it matter?''
''Are you threatening me or not?''
''I'm merely trying to point out your extreme good fortune in catching the fancy of this doddering old ruin." He tapped himself on his scale-mailed chest.
"All right,'' she said. ''I count myself fortunate.''
"And well you should! Smile! I'm not going to hurt you, no matter what. I don't hurt wonderful pieces, as I said. Especially when they have such amazing white skin and such striking grey almond eyes. But I think it would be entirely in order for you to show me some gratitude for the next couple of nights, until we're just about to Al- Baradh, and I head for Thangura with Shiraz's money."
"I'm betrothed," Lilitu said.
"Think about it anyway," said Nadjibullah.
The morning wore on. Once the sun got high in the sky, the caravan halted, and didn't start moving again till the heat broke in the mid-afternoon. There was a rain-shower after that, which cleared quickly---this time of year, there was always rain in the afternoon. Lilitu was glad of that, because it kept the dust down---she and Nadjibullah were far back in the column.
Several hundred yards to the right and left rode troops of soldiers, fifteen men apiece; there was another squad out in front, and a fourth bringing up the rear. She continued to be startled by the way that the flankers would simply vanish from time to time---she'd look away, and they'd be gone, only to reappear a short while later, coming up out of some shallow declivity that was just enough to conceal them. Now that the dust had been damped down, and they weren't even raising those rusty clouds, the whole thing seemed even more eerie.
"Country looks flat, but it's not," Nadjibullah explained. "Men who know what they're doing can come right up on you, particularly after it's rained. Now you take our boys to the left here---"
Lilitu looked. The flankers were even then in the process of slipping from view.
"Those idiots should stick to the ridges," Nadjibullah said. "Pay close attention to what they're looking at, pick out the high ground, and stay on it. Wouldn't be as easy to sneak up on them. I should talk to their damn commander---"
He broke off, staring away to the left.
"What is it?" Lilitu asked, then looked the same way. At first she thought the flankers had come back up into view; then she realized that these riders were much too distant. And numerous.
"Shit," said Nadjibullah. "Those are Naimans."
How can he tell? Lilitu thought. After a few second the flankers came back up into view, obscuring the riders beyond them; if the troops had seen the Naimans, they gave no sign of it. But others in the main column besides Lilitu and Nadjibullah had glimpsed the marauders and horns sounded, and the caravan halted. The flankers came galloping over to the column, the other troops and the caravan master soon joining them.
"I think I'd better go volunteer my expertise," Nadjibullah said.
Lilitu waited tensely, scanning the surrounding landscape, fully expecting the invisible slight declivities on every side to suddenly boil over with vast numbers of charging, screaming, scimitar-waving riders. But as time wore on, it began to seem as if no one had caught a second glimpse of the Naimans--- at least, the men who Nadjibullah had gone to lecture seemed to grow increasingly casual in their attitude. The four troops split up once more; Nadjibullah returned, shaking his head.
"Ah, what do I know?" he asked.
"Are the Naimans still out there?" Lilitu asked.
"Somewhere...weren't enough of 'em to take us for the time being, but they're probably sending for sending for reinforcements."
"Why don't we head back for Sawaliyeh?" Lilitu didn't much like the idea, but Toghril sounded even worse than Shiraz...
"I suggested that. Strongly.''
Guessing he planned to abscond before he got there, she asked: ''But the master said---what?''
''He'd have none of it. Said he's a week behind already, and that some fellow up the line is going to have his hide as it is, and that he's paying those guards good money, and---''
''Why don't we head back on our own?"
"Because, my dear, if those Naimans are still lurking about, they'll catch us before we've gone a mile. Have you come to a decision, by the way?"
"Regarding that show of gratitude. Things may get rough, and you might never get another chance to be fucked by my leathery old self---"
Lilitu gave a shocked laugh.
"---or anyone else, for that matter---"
Just then a horn brayed, and the column started forward again.
That night, he didn't ask if she wanted to sleep under the stars, just put the tent up. Then he sat down next to her by the fire.
"I'm betrothed," she said.
"You'll simply be getting some practice."
"I should practice being faithful."
"Nonsense. A wife needs to satisfy, above all else. You should, therefore, be properly seasoned. And I'm just the cook to do it. You're not a virgin anyway."
"Akbar doesn't know that," she lied.
"What difference does that make?"
She wasn't sure.
He said: "It's not as though your maidenhead will knit back up if we don't do it."
"I want to change," she replied.
"Still won't get it back."
"I like Akbar...''
"A moving profession."
"I don't want to be bad anymore...''
"But you know you will."
"What did you tell me?'' he asked. ''That you'd be lying if you said you were trustworthy?"
"Gave me all that money. I'm supposed to marry Akbar---"
"Marriage is a human institution," Nadjibullah jeered.
"You make a vow---"
"You haven't yet. And even when you do, it's just breath passing through your lips. Same as when you belch."
"It's not like that at all---"
"You should just enjoy yourself, whenever you can. You've been doing that anyway."
She asked: "How do you know so much about me?"
"Do you know anyone we both might have fucked?"
Lilitu closed her eyes. "Sayida."
"Say--ida," Nadjibullah said. "Mind you, she never said an unkind word about you. Some might've thought she was being unkind, but she wasn't. She thought you were just wonderful. Brought you up constantly, especially when we were in the process, as it were...''
"Who else were you doing?" Lilitu asked.
"Not the master of the house. Or the animals, you'll be happy to hear. Not sure if I can say that about Sayida...wouldn't be surprised if she give birth to twin goats one day...''
"What about Shiraz?"
"Twice a week. She talked about you too. Although I don't think she had any real idea of what to do with you."
Lilitu bent over, head in her hands.
"Didn't mean to depress you," he said. "But Sawaliyeh is a little patch of Khymir come south."
"Evidently," Lilitu said.
"I've been up there, you know," Nadjibullah said. "Went with my brother Atef about fifteen years ago. Coming back was a big mistake. Atef's done very well, opened a brothel. I spent some remarkable evenings there. Told Sayida all about them."
"I think she passed some of it on to me."
He nodded. "Bedtime stories, eh?"
"Did you like them?"
"Yes," Lilitu admitted.
"I'm a better storyteller than Sayida," Nadjibullah said.
She could easily believe it---that voice of his could certainly be employed to great effect. But even though he was making inroads, she still wasn't ready, and part of her hoped she never would be. She moved away from him.
"You're too old for me, and I'm supposed to marry Akbar."
"Whatever," he said.
There was no sign of the bandits the next day; Nadjibullah noted the fact that the caravan hadn't passed any packtrains coming east.
"Might be why we haven't seen any more Naimans," he said. "They hit a caravan farther along..."
Guessing he saw a chance to take off, anxious to delay the seizing of her dowry as long as possible, Lilitu said: "You don't know that they're gone."
"That's true," he replied.
When they made camp, he set up the tent again and started in on her once more.
"I've been thinking,'' he said. "When I bolt, you should come away with me. If I take your dowry, your marriage is off. There won't be anything for you at Al-Baradh. But between your dowry and the silver Shiraz gave me, we'll have lots of money. We could go to Thangura, book a ship for Khymir, and still have plenty left over. My brother would be delighted to see me, and we could invest in his business. A brothel in Khymir can turn an astounding profit...''
"And I'll be...what?" Lilitu asked. "One of your brother's whores?"
"With your looks, you'd do very well," he said.
"You mean, your brother would do very well."
"That's not what I meant at all---"
"I'm telling you right now,'' she said, "I don't like this line of argument."
"Just thought I'd try," he answered. "Nothing else seems to make an impression, and we're running out of time. This caravan is going to reach Al-Baradh tomorrow, or the morning after...''
"I don't want to go to Khymir and become a whore."
"Just a suggestion."
He fell silent after that, and drank a good deal of wine; then he went into the tent. Lilitu stretched herself out beside the fire, under her blanket, and had either been asleep or just on the verge of it when he cried:
"Look! Ever see a snake like this?''
His hand was sticking out through the tent-flap, a long serpent dangling from it. She went closer. It was either a brown or black jerboa snake---it was hard to tell in the firelight. Either way, it was common.
"You know perfectly well what kind it is," she said.
He tossed it away, said: "Oh well, I've got another," and snatched her skirt up by the hip, pulling her into the tent and down on top of him.
"You owe me," he said.
Indeed, that had always struck her as his best argument.
She still didn't feel much like co-operating at first, and considered crying rape, but once his hands were moving all over her, enormously strong and extremely skillful at the same time, she began to feel a distinct apathy about her rights. He was nothing at all like Akbar or Oded, or even Sayida for that matter, although she had never, frankly, imagined that his technique would be very like hers. He was very direct and forceful without being rough, the impression reinforced by the extreme hardness of his muscles, which was apparent even through his clothes. There hadn't been an ounce of fat on Oded or Akbar---Akbar had been quite skinny, in fact---but Nadjibullah made them seem doughy. He knew how to kiss, and his fingers seemed more clever by the moment---by the time he had her clothes off, she was beyond caring about any of the things that had once disturbed her about him. They went at it well into the night, stopped for some food, then started again; he was indefatigable, and quite an excellent storyteller too, just as he'd said. She suspected some of the most amazing bits must be mere invention, but what splendid inventions they were, informed by his uncanny knack for settling on the sort of details that would move her, and he exhausted her so thoroughly that---
She didn't even have a memory of drifting off.
Blue sky showed through the tent flap; she heard voices outside, all sorts of other sounds as well, birdsong, feet crunching on gravel, brush rustling, camel croaks, harness-bells chiming. Nadjibullah was pulling his trousers on. He prodded her leg.
"That hasn't happened for a while," he said.
"Someone wearing me out so much that I don't even remember falling asleep---Say---did you leave your dowry out there?"
She jumped up, almost ran out to get it, then realized she was naked.
"I'll go," he said.
Donning a shirt, he went out, then returned with the sacks.
"Don't you feel silly?" he asked, and put his boots on.
"Almost sunup," he said. "We should've cleared out a while ago. Something's wrong."
"Ask," Lilitu said.
He went and came back.
"Caravan-master's taken ill," he explained.
Lilitu had some flatbread, watching him climb into his scale-mail and fasten his sword-belt.
''Let's take the tent down," he said.
"I'm naked," she said.
"Dress," he replied.
She did so, helped with the tent, then helped pack everything onto the mule.
"What's the rush?" she asked.
"We're leaving," he said.
She looked round at the others. "Doesn't look like it."
"You and I.''
"Enjoy yourself last night?"
"You know I did. But I'm---"
"Supposed to marry Akbar," he said. "Let's put it this way. I'm leaving, with your dowry, whether you come or not."
"You wouldn't dare," she said.
"Who's to stop me?"
"They're not even awake yet. And I could lose myself in this country like that---" He snapped his fingers.
''What about the Naimans?''
''Have to chance it.''
She pleaded: "Don't take my dowry."
"Come with me," he answered, and went over to her horse.
"You have no right---"
Opening one of the saddlebags, he took out the gold-sacks. "No one has rights.You should come with me."
"How does that follow---"
"I won't argue with you anymore," he said, slinging the sacks over his shoulder, coming back to her. "But my offer still stands.''
"To let me accompany my own money?" she cried.
Nearby, people stopped what they were doing, looked up. Nadjibullah circled partway round Lilitu, saying:
"It was never yours.''
''Akbar's father will hunt you down.''
''Have to chance it.''
''Is that your answer for everything?''
''Keep your voice down.''
Complying, even though she didn't know why, she answered: "I think you're truly something, and I don't want anyone hunting you down. But you'd better not take my dowry."
A camel-driver drew near, asking: "Is there some problem, young lady?"
Lilitu didn't answer, eyeing Nadjibullah desperately.
"What's it going to be?" she asked.
He whispered, "I think I could kill that oaf in a heartbeat." His hand wandered to his hilt. "Shall I?"
She didn't doubt he could and would do it...badly rattled, she said: ''My father---''
''Is farther away than Akbar's, and even less likely to catch us.''
"Neither me, nor you. You have nothing to worry about. If you're smart, you don't get caught."
"I've been caught---"
"You weren't with me. I've been stealing, killing, fucking other men's wives and daughters for years and years. Do you think there's justice in the world? That God cares? There's no lightning-bolt aimed at me---"
This assertion was cut short by a loud thump, and something lunged out of his chest, flipping one of his mail-scales up---feeling a sting between the breasts, Lilitu jumped back, squinting. Two and a half feet of arrow-shaft had emerged from his ribcage---the point had nicked her. He coughed and looked down, then back up at her, his face going very pale. He tottered.
Another arrow whirred down, thudding into the back of his head at a slant, the point bursting out through his left eyesocket, knocking his eyeball down onto his cheek. Running with blood, the shaft came out farther than the first one before its force was spent; instead of jerking to a sudden halt, it slowed visibly, and sagged; the only thing holding it in his eyesocket were the remains of the fletching. The shaft sagged further, and Lilitu heard a soft bristly rasping sound as the feathers slipped free of his eyelids. Pushing the eyeball to one side, the arrow fell, rattling over the scale-mail on his chest, dropping past the shaft protruding there.
Blood boiling from his eyesocket, he reached in Lilitu's direction, but she doubted he was even aware of her; he coughed again, shuddering. She stepped up, snatched the gold-sacks away from him, and stepped back again before he fell.
A hundred yards behind him, blazing orange in the first rays of the sun, standing out vividly against the deep blue of the western sky, a lone horseman was revealed atop a low ridge. Almost immediately, two more appeared, on either side of him; then, very much as Lilitu had imagined it (except for the fact that the light was more dramatic than she'd envisioned, and she saw more bows than scimitars) whatever slight declivity there was behind the ridge suddenly boiled over with charging, screaming bandits.
She heard things rushing through the air. The camel-driver screamed...he was looking down at his leg. Fletching was sticking out beside his shin; an arrow-shaft slanted from his calf, down into the dirt.
Red spray burst from his back; an arrow struck the dirt a few yards behind him. He grabbed himself in front and behind, turned partway towards Lilitu, then reached down, tried to pull the arrow out of his leg by the fletching, then out of his calf by the shaft; he didn't seem to be thinking too straight. A third arrow caught him in the jaw and pinned that to his shoulder. He simply seemed to give up after that, lying right down.
Lilitu looked back at the bandits.
Like a wave, they were still washing over the top of that ridge, the ones in front vanishing for a few seconds behind a line of brush as they raced down into the valley-bottom between the two slopes. Then they tore back up into view, ripping through the scrub, sending branches and leaves flying, stones and dust exploding under the hooves of their horses.
All throughout the camp, voices were screaming; somewhere a trumpet began to blow, then fell suddenly silent. Horses neighed and camels croaked. A man raced past Lilitu dragging a long string of sausages in the dirt. Another went by in the other direction with his pants around his ankles, reaching to pull them up, looking like he was just about to fall over but never quite doing it. A third stumbled by with one arm propped out from his side by an arrowhead that had punched out through his ribcage; he flopped down on his face, whereupon a dog dashed up between his legs and onto his back, only to be whirled off him by an arrow through the head. Lilitu wondered if anyone had actually been aiming at the dog, wondered why she was bothering to wonder, and raced towards her mount.
The horse and the one strung to it were both terrified, and shied and reared as she approached; she managed to grab a rein and yank on it, and her steed co-operated long enough for her to climb into the saddle. Then, even as the first bandits were thundering into the camp, she wheeled her horse round and galloped off in the opposite direction.
As she passed between two tents, a woman darted out in front of her, was bashed to the ground by Lilitu's horse, the animal stopping dead after it struck her, the one behind slamming into it. Hearing a hideous squeal, Lilitu looked back to see the second horse collapsing with an arrow in its back. Drawing a knife, Lilitu sliced the line connecting the two beasts, reined round the woman on the ground, and goaded her horse back to a gallop.
A camel stumbled by in front, a man stumbling along beside it, tugging on its bridle, as though he entertained some hope of yanking the beast to a halt and mounting it; both plowed into the side of a large red tent, which deflated over them, air puffing its flap out as it collapsed, two chickens sailing through on the gust, trailing feathers.
Lilitu noticed motion to her right; a bandit hammered up beside her, his eyes dark slits, his face red with dust, his head shaved except for a tuft of black hair in front bisected by a shaved stripe. He was wearing baggy blue-silk trousers but no shirt, and on his arms were two leather sleeves, bound together by thongs across his tattooed chest and back and partially covered with stapled-on chain mail and small metal plates. He carried a short glossy brown double-recurved bow, and his arrows were in a boot on his saddle; switching his bow to his left hand, he leaned over reached out with his right, snatched Lilitu's reins---
And let them go again as a man rushed up in front of him and crouched, setting the butt of a long spear in the ground, the point missing the Naiman's horse's neck and driving into the bandit's chest, flinging him backwards from the saddle, the horse going right over the spearman.
Directly in front of Lilitu, a tent burst into flames with a whoom! Enveloped in fire, a figure lunged out of the conflagration, cradling something in its arms. Lilitu's horse balked, began to back up. A Naiman came riding round the tent, waving a burning brand. Catching sight of her, he dropped it and spurred towards her, but a flock of sheep--Lilitu was reminded of termites--surged into his path, and his horse shied and reared. While she was trying to get hers going again, she found herself, for several terrible moments, eyeing the bandit across the boiling wool. He jumped down from his mount, and she thought he was going to come wading right through, but he drew his sword and started hacking at the sheep, following along behind the flock, chopping and laughing.
Lilitu's mount decided to start moving again, away to the right, where a bandit was walking casually towards her eating an apple; there was a horse behind him, lying motionless on its side with its legs sticking straight out, a forelimb chopped partway through above the fetlock, hoof hanging. Holding his apple in his mouth, he waved at Lilitu with both hands as though he expected her to stop; when she sped up, she caught the Naiman word for bitch, and he hurled the apple at her---it shattered smartingly against her ear, covering the side of her face with juice.
Avoiding two more dismounted bandits, Kadjafim, who were carring on an animated conversation while dragging a woman by her braids, she saw a rider surrounded by a ring of Kadjafi soldiers, all of them prostrate and wringing their hands, begging for their lives. The bandit, who was wearing a helmet with a very tall red nodding plume, looked as though he might have been all of fourteen and seemed to be enjoying himself royally; he was grinning broadly, with big buck teeth.
She continued south.
Once she got out of the camp, she couldn't see anyone ahead of her; a glance back showed her that no one was following, at least for the moment. If she could just descend into one of those hollows, she was sure she could lose herself---she had water and food, and Sawaliyeh was only two days' ride…
A gust of wind struck her, and grit got into her eyes; she winced, rubbed them with thumb and forefinger, opened them again. They still felt scratchy, and she was about to rub them again when she realized that a group of riders had drawn themselves up directly in front of her.
With a curse, she reined away to the right. She heard whoops in back of her, glanced over her shoulder to see several bandits pursuing her; the rest made for the camp, others flooding up behind them.
She galloped west, jabbing her heels into her horse. An arrow whirred past her; in spite of the fact that it had come so close, she was certain it must have been a warning shot. She considered stopping, decided to press ahead.
Her mount screamed, slowed; she reached back, felt an arrow embedded in the animal's haunch, was much less sure that this one had been a warning. Again she thought of giving up, but without actually dismissing the idea, continued forward, trying to goad her horse back to a full gallop.
A tonsured rider swept up alongside her, wearing a suit of brown-lacquered lamellar armor that had seen much better days. He aimed his bow at Lilitu's face; as she flinched, he grinned and shifted his aim, apparently preparing to finish her horse.
Just then his stepped into a chuckhole.
Even over the pounding of the hooves, Lilitu heard the snap of its foreleg; the Naiman's horse went down on its chin, upended, and came down on top of him as it broke its neck.
Lilitu barked a laugh.
An instant later her horse, having had quite enough of her goading, especially when it had taken an arrow in the behind in her service, simply stopped, and she flew from the saddle, sliding up along its neck, her legs on either side of it; passing over its ears, she slanted down, her stomach barely touching the top of the horse's head, then sailed to the ground.
As she was getting up, spitting dirt and clutching a bloodied forearm, her two remaining pursuers rode round in front of her from either side, chuckling, both of them wearing iron-studded silk armor embroidered with coiling red dragons.
She looked round towards the camp. It seemed to have been completely overrun; many of the tents were burning. Riders milled about, some discharging bows downward, others leaning from their saddles, swinging sabers or axes, or jabbing with spears. Having fled the camp, scores of horses and camels were wandering about in the brush.
She looked back at the men who'd caught her. One dismounted and came forward. The sacks had fallen from her shoulder; he picked them up, opened one, whistled, then drew it back shut.
"Lot of gold," he said. All the steppe tribes spoke pretty much the same language; Lilitu had learned the basics from her mother, and had picked up the rest over the years.
He studied Lilitu's face. "What are you?" he asked. "Naiman? Mirkut?"
"Naiman," she said.
"And what were you doing in that caravan?" he asked.
"I'm a slave. I belong to a dye-merchant---"
"No," he replied. "Lord Toghril now."
"But I'm a Naiman, just like you---"
"Who knows what the Hell you are, sister?" he asked, and went to take a look at the arrow in her mount. "Your animal's lucky. I only drew part-way." He stroked the horse's thigh. "Yes, you're lucky, boy. We can fix you up, I think."
"Let's go," the other Naiman called.
"Right," said the first, and leered at Lilitu. "The boss is going to want to meet you."
He bound her hands and strung her behind her horse with a pleated leather rope, while the other Naiman strung the wounded beast; they went back up into the camp.
All the bandits there had dismounted; some were searching tents and opening bales and barrels and jars, while others were binding captives' wrists. There were corpses everywhere, hacked, opened, sprawled grotesquely in pools of blood. Lilitu had only seen a few dead people in her life, and none who'd met a violent end; she could barely keep herself from retching. She wanted to close her eyes, but the Naiman that was towing her seemed perfectly happy to ride straight over anything, no matter how grisly it was, and she had to look just to keep herself from tripping.
In spite of the images assaulting her, she found herself thinking fairly clearly, rather to her surprise...she noticed the victims were all old women, young children, or grown men, in short, unsalable merchandise.
Along with other prisoners, she was yanked about the camp for a time, her captors showing her off, joking with comrades, admiring each other's loot. Bottles went round; an old fellow took charge of her wounded horse.
Then orders passed; things began to get organized. Booty and prisoners were gathered together; standing towards the edge of the mass of captives, Lilitu saw Toghril for the first time.
Given what Nadjibullah had said, she recognized the chieftain immediately ; a squat, gnarled, twisted brute with very long arms, he'd just come out of a tent, and was pulling his trousers up--- she guessed he'd been sampling one of the prisoners. He was barechested, and even at a distance, she could see that his skin was lumpy and mottled; as for his face, it was hard to make much sense of it. It was located between his hair and his neck, but his eyes weren't readily visible, and she wasn't quite able to discern his nose---the only feature she could clearly detect was his mouth. Everything else seemed jumbled.
"Where's Koghar?" he shouted in a harsh, consummately brutal voice, painful to the ears.
One of his men ran up and whispered to him. Toghril pushed him away, advancing on the prisoners with a weird, quick, swinging limp, as though his injuries had imparted an instability that had, somehow, enhanced his mobility; it was quite nightmarish. As he came closer, Lilitu kept trying to get a clear impression of his face, but couldn't---it simply failed to resolve itself into something coherent.
Another of his underlings rushed up with a pair of severed heads, holding them by the hair.
"My Lord," he said.
Toghril hefted one and nodded appreciatively, like one who hefted heads with some frequency.
"This one's even heavier," his underling said, and presented the second. Toghril stood comparing them. At length he gave one back to his man and pointed to the other, declaring, to the manifest delight of the bandits standing nearby:
"This is one heavy head!"
Just then a thin man in a chain-mail shirt appeared on the scene.
"Koghar!" Toghril cried.
"My Lord!" the thin man said.
Toghril swung the head back and forth, saying: "I have a question.''
Koghar watched the ghastly pendulum, his face going back and forth. "Yes, My Lord?"
"Where were you?"
Koghar looked up. "Just now?"
"When we attacked."
''There were chuckholes...burrows. Thousands of 'em, so we went round.''
''You went round?''
''It was like the ground-squirrels had a city...''
''Ah, you just go straight on through. That's if you've got any stones at all. So what if a couple of fellows break their necks...everyone dies of something. You should be ashamed of yourself.''
''Apologize to your ancestors.''
Koghar looked at the sky. “I am so sorry.''
Toghril proffered the head. "Do you think you're as sorry as this fellow?"
"Take it," Toghril said.
Koghar accepted it.
"Ever feel such a heavy damn head?" Togril asked.
"No, My Lord," Koghar said.
"Neither have I," Toghril said, and motioned for him to give it back.
Koghar returned it.
"You know though," Toghril said, "I 'd wager I can make it even heavier."
Koghar seemed puzzled.
"Feel heavier, at any rate," Toghril said.
Toghril nodded. "To you---"
Swinging the head round, he smashed Koghar in the face with it. Blood and teeth tumbling from his mouth, Koghar toppled backwards, his men jumping to get away from him. Like a hideous ape, Toghril capered up alongside him, swung the head down again, leaped back, then in once more. Lilitu looked away, but heard blow after blow. Thumps became crunches, the crunches grew mushy, then turned into wet smacks, like laundry being slapped against a rock; when at last the sounds stopped and Lilitu looked once more, Toghril and Koghar were both covered in blood, the severed head was a hanging red ragged mass, and Koghar's was completely pulped.
"There now," Toghril said, dropped the dripping thing he held, then turned and started towards the prisoners again. It was, if anything, harder now for Lilitu to discern his features, with all the blood spattered over him; he had to come very near before she could distinguish everything, and then, awestruck, she wondered just how many horses had galloped over him. His face was wide and splayed, the whole center of it flattened, his brow crushed concave; there was a bizarre sideways crest across the top of his head, as though pressure on the front of it had caused it to break in the middle. His eyes seemed to have been pushed back in their sockets, even to the extent of being slightly removed from their lids, and his nose barely protruded at all, defined primarily from beneath by the twin slits of his flattened nostrils; his mouth was huge but lipless, and everywhere his skin was printed with crescent-shaped overlapping indentations.
She blinked, shook her head----
And realized he was staring straight at her. He reached out as if to touched her, then appeared to realize his hand was soaked in gore, and told one of his lieutenants:
"Brush that dust off her face."
The man hastened to comply; when he was done, Toghril cocked his head to one side, the whole attitude of his body softening; the corners of his lips drew upwards in a smile which was pathetically childlike and all the more gruesome for it.
"Mother?" he asked.